Journal of Hyper(+)drome.Manifestation
Dissent on the Net: Cultures of Electronic Resistance in the United States
by Henning Ziegler



  1. Introduction

As the interface between global capital and new electronic technologies refigure and reshape the face of culture, the importance of thinking through the possibilities and limits of the political takes on a new urgency. What constitutes both the subject and the object of the po­litical mutates and expands as the relationship between knowledge and power becomes a powerful force in producing new forms of wealth, increasing the gap between the rich and the poor, and radically influencing how people think, act, and behave. Culture as a form of political capital becomes a formidable force as the means of producing, circulating, and distributing information transform all sectors of the global economy and usher in a veritable revolution in the ways in which meaning is produced, identities are shaped, and historical change unfolds within and across national boundaries.

Henry A. Giroux

Cultural studies as an academic project has always been concerned with describing ways to change the political status quo of society at large toward greater democracy. The concerns of early British cultural studies sprang from a crisis of orthodox Marxism; the result for cultural studies as an academic field was a turn toward the agency of the working class and of subcultures. The concerns of North American cultural studies sprang from a disbelief in the agency of a revolutionary class, and the result was a turn toward describing popular culture. Witnessing the United States’ culture wars in the name of ever spreading capitalism, however, writing about romance novels and Star Trek increasingly seemed to be too acquiescent an agenda to some theorists. They developed a nostalgia for the critical perspective of engaged scholarly work of the Birmingham school It might be for that reason that some of these thinkers have now swarmed to explain to us the cultures of the digital age. In the wake of their writing, a view of the Internet as hotbed for a digital revolutionary class has become en vogue—contrary to lifestyles, it is argued, digital culture seems to open up new places of hope (Haraway 1991, Benedikt 1992, Landow 1997, Turkle 1997). As Mark Poster writes,

The magic of the Internet is that it is a technology that puts cultural acts, symbolizations in all forms, in the hands of all participants; it radically decentralizes the positions of speech, publishing, filmmaking, and radio and television broadcasting, in short the apparatuses of cultural production (Poster 2001: 184).

Is there revolutionary cultural resistance, then, to be found in cyberspace? Or is technocapitalism finally taking over the world while we are living in—a Matrix?

It cannot be the task of a critical cultural studies to settle this question once and for all by returning to an empirical discussion of Internet culture. Cultural studies should instead inquire after the context of such questions, after the power games that take place in the struggles over closure. Recognizing that “students of new media must be modest in their claims and hypothetical in their voices” (Poster 2001: 19), it is perhaps more useful for us to think in terms of different questions about cultural resistance on the Internet: “are there new kinds of relations occurring within it which suggest new forms of power configurations between communicating individuals” (Poster 2001: 177)? If so, what do these look like? How do they differ from real world power struggles? Do groups who engage in cyber-struggles disappear from the radar of the monolithic real world law and order? Or is capitalism, especially in the United States, taking on a ‘fractal’ quality that is speeding up the digital divide with a hyper-capitalist work ethic that can now reach right into dissidents’ homes? What is tactical media activism and how is it being sized-up by the spectacle of cyberspace? Do hackers constitute a revolutionary subculture that is actively unmasking that spectacle? Is the digital public domain more public than a mall, as some privacy activists seem to think? And finally: do the activities of such activist groups constitute a new, democratic politics of the Internet?

In this essay, I will attempt to answer some of these questions. The first part will be a general introduction to the field of the politics of culture and technology in the United States. Starting from a critique of an instrumental view of technology, we will arrive at the notion that technology is a cultural construction. The result of our diagnosis of contemporary American technoculture will be that a process of closure it taking place on the Internet that we might term more generally the ‘malling of America’ (Kowinski 1985). The second part discusses the politics of some groups that are actively working against this closure. It will essentially argue that rather than taking up monolithic notions of hero-hacking or free software activism, we need to follow the more skeptical and pragmatic outlook of tactical or micro-media to arrive at a useful understanding of a practice that might counter this spectacle of the Internet. However, instead of proclaiming a new-found revolutionary subject, the third part of this essay will illustrate how tactical media might change the self-understanding of politically pessimistic critical practice itself: much of contemporary cultural theory seems to follow a cycle of singling out a revolutionary subject and watching it fail the test of real-life politics. Using the Internet as a thing to think with, our critical practice might depart from this cycle and begin to learn from Internet micro-struggles how to reformulate power and ‘resistance’ in order to arrive at a more meaningful notion of cultural studies itself.

A significant problem poses itself for us in the process of arriving at an informed guess about question of an Internet politics: Our generation hasn’t really witnessed any revolutions or greater societal changes. As George Lipsitz puts it, “It’s difficult to believe in something that you have never seen” (Lipsitz 2000: 83). To make matters worse, we have also (though rightfully) abandoned the belief in a “progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice will finally be one” (Gramsci 2002: 67). With this outlook, writing about cultures of dissent on the Internet almost seems paradoxical: if we are living in a total system, where is the dissent supposed to come from? My tactics in the face of this problem can only be tentative, and they are twofold: one is the usage of the “we” form. In his book Dark Fiber, Geert Lovink writes that

The ‘we’ form in the age of the net is one of the few possibilities left to address groups and subnetworks and formulate common strategies […]. Using the problematic ‘we’ form is an indirect critique of the liberal-bourgeois form of debating in which opponents politely exchange arguments, just for the sake of it (Lovink 2002: 230).

The other tactic is my hope that by discussing what we can learn about activism in the United States from groups such as Critical Art Ensemble, Witness, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or Free Radio Berkeley who move about playfully and creatively in American net-scapes even though the process of the malling of the Net continues with an ever-increasing speed, we might open our academic practice to new forms of agency that might contribute to disturbing the closure of the Internet and of our lives. If this essay makes that closure seem just a little less inevitable, my efforts will have been worthwhile.

  1. Cultures

    1. Net-scapes

Technology, the hardest of material artifacts, is thoroughly cultural from the outset: an expression and creation of the very outlooks and aspirations we pretend it merely demonstrates.

James W. Carey

What is technology? What does technological advancement do to social justice? How can we direct the development of computer and Internet research in a humane manner? In our time, such questions often get buried underneath the discourses of hope, freedom, and newness that surround computer culture and ascribe phenomenal capabilities to even the slightest advancement in processor speed. Such questions, however, are also key questions for a politically engaged cultural studies as it has been practiced by critics such as Stuart Hall or Raymond Williams. Why does the discipline of cultural studies hardly begin to pose “the cultural question of the Internet” (Poster 2001: 4)? Why do we shy away from interpreting the cultural processes that lie at the heart of the accelerating distribution of the logic of capitalism in our time of networked computing? Perhaps we have internalized the mechanistic view of technology of the computer industry’s marketing departments and combined it with the cynical, radical semiotic outlook that seems to dominate many cultural studies departments today. In this section, we will see how the notion of ‘net-scapes’ might help us begin to perceive technology not as a seamless, determined structure of domination, but as an ever-changing cultural phenomenon.

Code Culture

As the information divide between rich and poor widens on a global scale, the silence of cultural studies regarding the cultures and politics of networked computing as a key factor behind that development becomes increasingly problematic. Why do we hold on to an instrumental view of technology that sees machines as tools instead of understanding technology as a deeply cultural phenomenon which would enable us to critique the divide? Why has film studies, for instance, largely established itself in the academic world and why haven’t many books been written on a “cultural studies of the Internet as a road into the critique of Internet discourse itself” (Sterne 1999: 260)? There are at least two reasons for this shortcoming. For one thing, the writing on culture and technology is firmly in the hands of the people who publish articles for popular computer magazines and manual books on software applications: journalists and computer experts who in turn depend on computer companies’ public relations departments for their information. On the other hand, academia shies away from networked computers that are still regarded as locus of unreliable information, even though computers and Internet services such as email increasingly also structure the domain of academic knowledge production. The reason for this problematic might be the mistaken notion of the computer as the perfect symbol manipulator. Like much of academia, cultural studies has completed its version of the linguistic turn, at the heart of which lies the contention that every phenomenon can be explained within the framework of literary theory. The theoretical reduction of the computer to a symbol manipulator might have been an outcome of the strange marriage between the literary theory notion of radical textuality and the mechanistic world model of code theory that is prevalent in media studies. As a result, we are accustomed to think of programmers as literary authors, and we can read and analyze computer code like poetry, without regard to its cultural context (Bolter 1991, Landow 1997). In fact, the academic success of film studies might originate in the field’s very ability to import such models of authorship from literary theory (as long as the cinematic apparatus is left out of film interpretation). Since much of literary theory is silent on politics, we should not be surprised that our current version of a cultural studies of the media

has little to say about the underlying political and economic forces that keep various social groups marginalized; nor does it know how to address the often subtle ways in which cultural practices both deploy power and are deployed in material relations of power (Giroux 2000: 69).

If we do not want our version of cultural studies to lack such characteristics, it is then perhaps time for us to turn away from the marriage of literary and code theory and to begin to understand technology as an essentially cultural phenomenon.

Boundaries and Links

An important attempt at qualifying a view of communication and technology that is silent on political and social questions has been undertaken by James Carey. In his book Communication as Culture, Carey separates two concepts of communication: the ‘transmission view’ and the ‘ritual view’ (Carey 1989). The transmission view is prevalent in media studies, and it is based on our physical experience of transportation. Just like the Christian missionaries thought that they were spreading the word of god to the heathens, we think that our communication consists of transporting a message with a fixed meaning to another person. In the theory of communication as transmission, communication becomes “a process whereby messages are transmitted and distributed in space for the control of distance and people” (Carey 1989: 15). Essentially, this view highlights the boundaries between social formations and their continuous cultural reiteration. The ritual view, on the other hand, emphasizes that communication is essentially a cultural balancing between two different sites: it is a negotiation of the relation of the social formations that take part in the communicative process. The ritual view is then “directed not toward the extension of messages in space but toward the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs” (Carey 1989: 18). Storytelling would be one way to think of such a representation of shared beliefs of a culture. Our strange marriage of literary and code theory, however, seems to be based on the transmission view of communication. It is this view in which “movement is space could be in itself a redemptive act” that is the ideological foundation for our ever-increasing computer hardware and software upgrade fever, and that is responsible for the aggressiveness with which ‘Western’ cultures sometimes try to get their message across to others (Carey 1989: 16).

How can we formulate a more open cultural notion of the Internet and communication that follows the ritual school? Steve Jones warns us that the speed in which the Internet is changing makes our attempts at grasping its characteristics in textual form or in panel discussions seem pathetic: the Net generally “does not meet what scholarship might require” (Jones 1999: 7). While it seems impossible then to detail out a ritual theory of the Internet and to stake out a specific path for cultural studies to follow, what we can learn from Carey’s emphasis on the negotiation of the relation of the formations that take part in the communicative process is to pay critical attention to the political implications of communication on the Internet. The ritual school of communication points us to an understanding of technology as an essentially cultural phenomenon: “To study communication is to examine the actual social process wherein significant forms are created, apprehended, and used” (Carey 1989: 30). From this wider perspective, studying the Internet involves not only the technology but also its users and its producers, the conditions in which it is produced and used, and the interconnections between its users, in short: the Internet and its context. From a similar perspective, Raymond Williams has used the term “cultural technology” instead of the classical Marxist notion of ‘superstructure’ to emphasize how culture and technology are intertwined in our everyday life in complex ways (Williams 1974: 4). The ritual school then highlights the links between social formations, not the boundaries. More generally, the Net as a research object perhaps crosses our traditional borders and limits of disciplines, schools, or academic interests: the ‘cultural question of the Internet’ is at the heart perhaps a question about the general usefulness of reductionist theories of boundaries that are continually setting up divisions between ourselves and others in the name of what has been called the logic of difference.

Complex Flows

There is a tentative metaphor which seems useful to connote in this essay the fluid and contextual character of the Internet as a cultural phenomenon: the notion of the ‘net-scape.’ Rather than being a fully working model of technology and society on which we can base our discussion about Internet activism in the United States, the metaphor should suggest that “the Internet is more like a social space than a thing, so that its effects are more like those of Germany than those of hammers” (Poster 2001: 176). In his book Modernity at Large, Arjun Appadurai has coined the terms ‘technoscape’ and ‘mediascape’ (Appadurai 1996) to highlight the fluidity of the spheres of culture and technology: “The suffix -scape allows us to point to the fluid, irregular shapes of these landscapes, shapes that characterize international capital as deeply as they do international clothing styles” (Appadurai 1996: 33). With the concepts of technoscape and mediascape it becomes possible to describe complex structures of feeling that cannot be grasped by notions of the ‘global village’ or techno-imperialism. For instance, the ‘global village’ is a strange reductionism for the experience of the way in which larger social formations are implicated in local space-time: it ignores that the village does not project its structure onto the larger formation, a configuration that results in a loss of a sense of place whenever we speak about the global (Appadurai 1996: 29). In addition, the mantric repetition of the reductive binarism ‘domination/resistance’ in cultural studies is now replaced by a description of a “complex, overlapping, disjunctive order that cannot any longer be understood in terms of existing center-periphery models” (Appadurai 1996: 32). However, our concept of the ‘net-scape’ perhaps comes closer to being a useful shorthand for the “increasingly complex relationships among money flows, political possibilities, and the availability of both un- and highly skilled labor” that are in our time increasingly driven by the Internet than the notions of mediascape or technoscape (Appadurai 1996: 34). For this essay, we will adopt this concept then to lead us away from monolithic ideas about technology toward more fluid notions of dissenting cultures on the Internet.

    1. Technocultures

Truckers and cyberpunks, rap musicians and concert pianists, even hippies and the Amish all employ technologies in such a way that their cultural activity is not intelligibly separate from the utilization of these technologies. The Amish have their wagons and farm equipment, the hippies their Volkswagen buses. The rap DJ has his or her turntable, which is employed differently from the turntable of a commercial radio DJ; the cyberpunk has a computer complete with modem, and this utilization differs from the accountant at his or her computer console.

Stanley Aronowitz

America before electricity and America after are two different places.

Bruno Latour

Our interpretation of net-scapes of Internet activism in the United States should start from the general recognition that American cultures are essentially cultures of technology. In the United States, advanced technology plays a crucial role in the formation of all social groups, perhaps contrary to Europe, where the activities of hackers for one have been associated with making-do and using cheap, low-tech equipment. As a technoculture, the United States are so deeply entangled in the webs of technology that the instrumental notion which regards our relation to machines as tools does not grasp technology adequately, namely as a “product of and producer of culture simultaneously” (Bell 2001: 2). From this viewpoint, net-scapes of Internet activism in the U.S. are both a product and a driving force of a larger societal process which we might call the ‘malling of America’ (Kowinski 1985).

Electronic Frontiers

There is a surprisingly wide range of social formations in the United States that have associated technology with a positive change of society at large toward greater freedom. Understanding their motivations perhaps enables us to understand the complex role of technology in American culture. The first part of this libratory coalition is the American government. In the early nineties, Al Gore has advanced the concept of the Internet as a national ‘information superhighway’. The information superhighway would strengthen America’s role as a leading nation in the business, educational, and military field, and under America’s lead, a better world for us all would eventually come about: “America, born in revolution, can lead the way in this new, peaceful world revolution,” Gore proclaimed in his 1994 speech at the University of California in Los Angeles (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 34). Essentially, the idea behind Gore’s superhighway concept was a transfer of control over the Internet from science and the government to corporations, a goal toward which the business world as the second part of the libratory coalition had been pressing ever since it discovered the World Wide Web (the total number of HTML pages accessible via the Internet) as a marketing instrument. In The Road Ahead, Microsoft leader Bill Gates describes such a corporate marketing fantasy of the Internet as “a new world of low-friction, low-overhead capitalism, in which market information will be plentiful and transaction costs low. It will be a shopper’s heaven” (Gates 1996: 171). ‘Low-friction’ capitalists and the government thus saw themselves in agreement over the future of the Internet; an agreement which would eventually result in one of the most important victories for telecommunication corporations over the independent media since the privatization of the air waves in the early twentieth century: the takeover of the U.S. Internet backbone from the National Science Foundation by the three U.S. telecommunication companies Sprint, Ameritech, and Pacific Bell in 1995 (Winston 1998).

Non-governmental organizations, media theorists, artists, and other critical thinkers in America fill in the third part of the libratory coalition. Most famously perhaps, John Perry Barlow and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have been associated with the ‘cyberlibertarian’ viewpoint. Barlow is one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an organization that promotes computer user freedoms ( In The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a text that he had written in 1996 during a WTO meeting in Davos, Switzerland, and that widely circulates on the Internet (Barlow 1996), Barlow aligns himself with Gore and Gates against the old industrial leaders whom he labels “weary giants of flesh and steel” and for electronic networks which he calls “the new home of Mind.” Barlow and the EFF formulate a view of American technocultural net-scapes that is similar to the rhetoric of the ‘information superhighway’ and ‘friction-free’ capitalism: the Internet is the place where “lovers of freedom and self-determination” are creating “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth,” a world “where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.” This ‘Barlovian view of cyberspace’ (Jordan 1999: 56) has been taken up by Mark Poster who voices a similar contention that “the Internet is ruled by no one and is open to expansion or addition at anyone’s whim as long as its communication protocols are followed” (Poster 2001: 27). In addition, a large part of earlier theoretical writing about works of fiction on the Internet, sometimes called ‘hyperfiction,’ follows the libertarian viewpoint (for a critique of these positions see Ziegler 2003). For instance, hypertext critic George Landow (Landow 1997: 25) speaks of a “democratization” through hypertext. And finally, artist Nicole Stenger proclaims that the Internet, “though born of war technology, opens up a space for collective restoration, and for peace” (Stenger 1991: 58). What to make of this coalition of what Jonathan Sterne has labeled the ‘millennial imagination’ (Sterne 1999)?

Machines in the Garden

Leo Marx has attempted to understand the crucial role of technology in American society in his book The Machine in the Garden in a way that views technology as “not only artifact but actor” (Carey 1989: 8). Marx qualifies two related aspects of the insistence on the libratory capacities of technology in American culture: one is the dichotomy between nature and culture that lies at the heart of U.S. society, and the other are the paradoxical attempts to reconcile that dichotomy. “There is a special affinity between the machine and the new Republic,” Marx writes (Marx 1964: 203). Ideas of democracy and the nation were not spread to a wider audience until the first printing presses had arrived in the colonies from Britain, a process that in turn had been made possible by naval technology improvements. The intimate relation of the early republic to technology is also expressed in the constitution—in fact, the document can be interpreted as an articulation of a mechanistic world view and politics in the English colonies. As Marx argues, “the dominant structural metaphor of the constitution is that of a self-regulating machine […]; it establishes a system of ‘checks and balances’ among three distinct, yet delicately synchronized, branches of government” (Marx 1964: 165). As a consequence, we could argue with James Carey that the United States is largely “the product of literacy, cheap paper, rapid and inexpensive transportation, and the mechanical reproduction of words” (Carey 1989: 2).

A dichotomy between nature and culture that Marx diagnoses as “the root conflict of our culture” (Marx 1964: 365) has then been ingrained in American society ever since the first colonizers and their machines set foot onto American soil. One famous imaginary resolution of the conflict is the Jeffersonian reconciliation of nature and culture through the purification of industrial technology through the contact with nature. Essentially, Jefferson’s idea was that “Once the machine is removed from the dark, crowded, grimy cities of Europe, […] it will blend harmoniously into the open countryside of his native land” (Marx 1964: 150). As an articulation of culture and nature, Jefferson’s attempt at a reconciliation of nature and technology can perhaps be interpreted as a reaction to a larger epistemological change in society: the cultural change from a cyclical, pre-modern notion of history and time toward the ideology of progress that dominant social formations were beginning to impose on other social groups during the industrialization of Britain in a cycle of naturalization: the more technology was purified by nature, the less the settlers resisted the beginning industrialization of America; the quicker industrialization in the colonies developed, the more “the notion of progress became palpable” throughout society (Marx 1964: 197). There is an irony at the heart of the Jeffersonian viewpoint that would result not in the purification of technology, but in antagonistic social formations that struggle over the development of technology. Jefferson’s idea “rests at bottom upon the idea that the factory system, when transformed to America, is redeemed by the contact with ‘nature’ and the rural way of life it is destined to supplant” (Marx 1964: 159). At this point, however, Leo Marx concedes that “The machine’s sudden entrance into the garden presents a problem that ultimately belongs […] to politics” (Marx 1964: 365). Nonetheless, his analysis offers us an understanding of how technology and culture in America are historically intertwined, with the result that we begin to understand the motivations behind the libratory coalition that we can now interpret as engaging in a version of the Jeffersonian practice of purifying industrial technology.

The Malling of America

If we are now able to see how culture and technology in the United States might be deeply intertwined, we are still lacking a political interpretation of the resulting net-scapes. For this purpose, it is helpful to return to the inception of the United States as a nation. There is an aspect of the philosophy of the republic in the American constitution that Leo Marx does not discuss. It differs in an important way from the Greek conceptualization of democracy that was held to work only on a very limited terrain: “The constitution proposed a republic on a scale never before imagined or thought possible: continental in its geography, virtually unlimited in its population” (Carey 1989: 5). As a result, we not only have a dichotomy between nature and culture ingrained into the American social formation, but also the starting point for what would later develop into the theory of United States imperialism. In this view, the U.S. is an imperial machine that has favored “spreading messages further in space and reducing the cost of transmission” over the equality of access as key approach to technology (Carey 1989: 155). A critical school of cultural studies has taken up that view in relation to the media. Raymond Williams, for instance, distinguishes the commercial character of television on three levels (Williams 1974): the production of the programs themselves, the advertising industry, and the overall promotion of consumer capitalism as a way of life. Media is the crucial force behind what has been called ‘cultural imperialism’ (Barber 1995): they are “at once locally generated, by domestic capitalist interests and authorities, and internationally organized, as a political project, by the dominant capitalist power” (Williams 1974: 35).

What is the difficulty of such a techno-imperialist view with regard to a politics of the Internet? Recognizing that the production and consumption of technocultural goods is a complex process with many nodal points and levels that we have called ‘net-scapes,’ a notion of culture meaning essentially “the expansion of the American communications system” (Williams 1974: 33) becomes limiting. Constructing the United States as a center of cultural imperialism might have worked in the age of the one-to-many medium of television, but today that notion becomes too convenient a term to describe the ever-changing flows of informational capital. As Appadurai cautions, “the United States is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of images but is only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes” (Appadurai 1996: 31). How can we then interpret American technocultures as not the center, but as an important site of capitalist power? It is Al Gore’s metaphor of the ‘information superhighway’ that takes on another meaning at this point. On the one hand, Gore’s images evokes the fast-paced communication of the many. But as much as the superhighway evokes fast communication, it also refers to a streamlined, near-total circle of production and consumption. As Nick Dyer-Witheford reminds us, the economic context of that image is one of Fordism in the post-World War II era. Around the auto industry and road building, a way of life was built at that time that “integrated assembly-line labor, mass consumption of manufactured goods, suburban housing, and privatized mobility in an industrial regime that sustained three decades of extraordinary prosperity” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 33).

In the complex of industrial mass production, suburban housing, transportation, and consumption, the shopping mall takes on crucial importance. Similar to the Internet of Bill Gates, the mall is a site for the (still mostly female) labor of commodity consumption, a practice during which we are mostly isolated from unpleasant social groups and their agendas that could disturb our moods and the oblivious tranquility of our shopping (Schiller 1989: 101; on the creativity of mall shopping see Fiske 1999: 38). The real estate on which every mall is built is privately owned, and as a result, the mall accelerates the corporate fantasy that places can be entirely configured for low-friction capitalism: similar to the Net, producers and consumers increasingly develop the expectation “to be able to choose to create a symbolic boundary between personal life-world and poverty, crime, and cultural alienation” (Chaney 1994: 165). It is this expectation rather than a process of monolithic techno-imperialism that lies as the heart of what we can call ‘the malling of America’—the process of the naturalization of a low-friction public space. This process might serve as a tentative first description for the dominant cultural politics against which cultures of dissent on the Internet direct their practice.

    1. Closures

The Internet is the Wild West. If you can imagine that you and your machine are you and your horse. And your ISP is your local town with your local sheriff. You know folks there. And you got your virus scanner on your side. Once you leave your local town, you're out on the cultural frontier. There's mail tribes, banditos, but more importantly, there's the railroad barons. In this case, router barons, and the router barons control everything.

Ricardo Dominguez

Internet activisms take place against the backdrop of the malling of America. How can we begin to describe with more sophistication what is going on at the heart of that process? Any cultural studies approach to a qualified politics of U.S. technocultures will perhaps suffer from a lack of training in political and economic theory, and the limited scope of this paper adds to such difficulties. Nonetheless, the finality of Ernest Mandel’s classic term ‘late capitalism’ does not seem to us lead into the right direction (Mandel 1975). If we follow Nick Dyer-Witheford, the political backdrop we are looking for might provisionally be described as two heterogeneous globalizations: one is the globalization of informational capital, and the other are the net-scapes of a counter-globalization (Dyer-Witheford 1999). Both globalizations are engaged in a complex struggle about the naturalization of a low-friction public space that is the ‘malling of America.’ At the end of this first section, we will characterize this process as the spectacle in the condition of ‘fractal capitalism.’

Fractal Capitalism

How does cultural studies generally interpret contemporary technocultures? After the linguistic turn that we have briefly touched upon above, it has by now become familiar in the field to characterize our time as ruled by the concept of the sign. The sign is not only taken to refer to the real, but also to have an arbitrary relation to the object which it stands for. Jean Baudrillard has extended this notion to his concept of the hyper-real, in which nothing stands for any real object at all, since everything is a copy, or a simulacrum (Baudrillard 1994). It has by now also become familiar to speak of an increase, or even overload, of visual information that is connected to the rule of the sign and that is the very basis for our lives in the contemporary capitalist net-scapes: “In this swirl of imagery, seeing is much more than believing. It is not just a part of everyday life, it is everyday life,” writes Nicolas Mirzoeff (Mirzoeff 1999: 1). As we have discussed above, the computer becomes nothing more than a perfect symbol manipulator in such an environment of signs: the increasing ubiquity of net-scapes of symbol-manipulating technology works toward making the ‘radical semiotic’ ideology commonplace. What gets lost in the semiotic outlook are the socio-political aspects of technology. Instead of limiting ourselves to interpreting an indefinite interplay of signs, we should recognize that commodities “come with prices attached” (Murdock 1997: 100). We are living in an economy of signs that has been made possible by the “superabundance of cultural signification”—after all, money is the perfect sign (Apostolidis 2000: 158). From this perspective, radical semiotic interpretation can only be regarded as a symptom and not a road to critique of the malling of our lives. As Mark Poster writes, such a position is perhaps simply a “desperate playfulness in the face of extreme phenomena” (Poster 2001: 138).

How can we conceive the ‘extreme phenomena’ without receding to radical semiotics so that we are able to diagnose the condition of culture in the United States? The key theoretical tactic is to regard the phenomena not as extreme but as an indication of capitalism’s transfer of money to the cultural domain, a process that results in informational capital. Following Nick Dyer-Witheford, we might call this condition ‘fractal capitalism:’ “In the newly socialized space of capital, a fractal logic obtains, such that each apparently independent location replicates the fundamental antagonism that informs the entire structure—capital’s insistence that life-time be subordinated to profit” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 82). Essentially, what the condition of fractal capitalism is all about is that capital has taken to the net-scapes: “the nervous system of daily life is no longer to be found in the simple workings and display of raw industrial power—the old means of production—but in the wired infrastructures that compute and transmit information” (Giroux 2000: 7). The interplay of signs is symptomatic of the condition in which “Information has now become capital” (Giroux 2000: 2). What we have tentatively labeled ‘the malling of America’ might now be restated in more detail: we are living in a “comprehensive, corporate, informational-cultural apparatus” that has no center but relatively powerful nodal points (Schiller 1989: 4). These nodes are actively altering their neighbors’ structure and copying micro-versions of the greater kernel onto them as they get triggered into activation by changes in their context. This framework makes it possible for us to understand how the logic of capital can become increasingly global without the dichotomy ‘center of domination/marginal resistance.’ In fact, the kernel of capital is copied at the very periphery so that, as the Critical Art Ensemble reminds us, the inner cities of Western metropolises look increasingly desolate (Davis 1990) as cities on the former marginal nodes take on some of their former strategic importance (Critical Art Ensemble 1995).

Why might our notion of fractal capitalism still sound frivolous to some cultural critics? The inevitable falsity of such an interpretation of our time should perhaps be regarded simply as a result of that very condition, when in fact the historical relation of technology as a driving force of capitalism has been well-documented. In his book Cybermarx, Nick Dyer-Witheford describes such links between technology and capital. For instance, it is commonplace for some theoreticians to write about computers and the Internet as if they were a first, non-industrial application of Bentham’s panopticon (Frohne, Levin and Weibel 2002), an apparatus of surveillance or control that Foucault discusses in detail in his Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1979: 195-228). Dyer-Witheford, however, argues that “the original panoptic apparatus that Foucault discussed in a carceral setting was at first designed for use in a factory setting” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 102). Essentially, the whole concept of networked computing received its first application in an industrial environment, namely “in the emergency management systems used by the Nixon administration to monitor its wage-price freeze and picket line violence in a truckers strike” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 78). One of the origins of computer science, in fact, lies in cybernetics, which is today often taken to mean ‘cyberspace studies’ when it really translates to the ‘science of control at a distance’. As Brian Winston reminds us, the general idea of control over distance antedates the first personal computer for years: as early as 1940, an IBM Model 1 was used to remotely operate another computer (Winston 1998: 322). Since control over distance today is most often applied in industrial robotics, cultural studies is perhaps well advised to generally interpret contemporary technocultures in this light: fractal capitalism is essentially a virtual continuation of such earlier industrial practices of remote control. As Dyer-Witheford writes, capitalism might have chased wage-labor out of its factories to the sweatshops at its margins and to cyberspace, but “with the aid of new technologies, it globally maps the availability of female labor, ethno-markets, migrancy flows, human gene pools, and entire animal, plant, and insect species onto its coordinates of value” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 10). Recognizing that Karl Marx has termed this integration of all structures of feeling into the logic of capital much earlier “the circuit of capital” (quoted in Dyer-Witheford 1999: 91), we should perhaps reformulate his notion from the electric sphere as the condition of fractal capitalism in our contemporary digital net-scapes.

Net-scapes without Politics

Internet activisms are cultural reactions against capitalism in the net-scapes. Why is it that theories of computers and ‘new media’ have generally erased an interpretation of the logic of this process from their agenda? From early German Medienwissenschaften that largely follow the myth of computers as war machines (Kittler 1999) to more recent North American publications (Bolter and Gruisin 2000, Manovich 2001), theorists see the computer essentially as nothing more than a machine that modifies and copies code. Perhaps Lev Manovich’s book The Language of New Media is symptomatic for this condition (Manovich 2001). Essentially, Manovich argues that ‘new media’ can be traced back to a historical convergence between photography and the computer: the programs were fed into the first computers in the form of punching cards, so the process of running a computer was similar to feeding film into a movie projector. Manovich goes on to develop the following principles of new media: numerical representation, modularity, automation, variability, and transcoding. Indeed, the automatic assembly of a website on the Internet follows these principles: images, sounds, and text files are numerical representations, so they can be incorporated into a website in computer code. As a result, a website may consist of many code modules that can each be manipulated and reinserted without disturbing the structure of the whole. In Manovich’s interpretation, ‘new media’ becomes new because of the process of transcoding: the “translation of all existing media into numerical data accessible through computers” (Manovich 2001: 20; Bolter and Gruisin 2000 have called this concept ‘remediation’). The weakness in Manovich’s approach is symptomatic for media studies in general: it does not grasp adequately the complex relationship between culture and technology in American society. In Manovich’s interpretation, the concept of transcoding or ‘remediation’ ultimately reaches into the social sphere: cultural transcoding becomes the process through which “cultural categories and concepts are substituted […] by new ones that derive from the computer’s ontology, epistemology and pragmatics” (Manovich 2001: 47). But how is it that this process actually works? If it remains true to the mechanistic principles of ‘new media,’ it comes close to the hypodermic needle theory of early media studies.

The goal of many mechanistic or instrumental media theories then is to reiterate the marketing rhetoric of technology as pure phenomenon, untouched by social friction and struggles. As David Sholle writes, “what lies behind the present discourse on technology is not a strict determinism, but rather an erasure of the social construction of technology” (Sholle 2002: 5). Bruno Latour has made a useful attempt to criticize the naturalization of such an ethereal Internet culture (Latour 1993). On the one hand, the apparatus of science is actively separating and purifying our world into “two entirely distinct ontological zones” of rational and irrational phenomena, culture and nature, and “human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other” (Latour 1993: 11). In addition, we are continuously moving phenomena from one sphere to the other to make sense of their complex characteristics in the practice of translation that “creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture” (Latour 1993: 10). The notion of the Internet as a rational phenomenon can be interpreted as an outcome these two related processes of translation and purification by which we are trying to make sense of our pre-modern condition: although it is essentially a mongrel, the Net is actively purified into the clean sphere of the mathematical. As Geert Lovink writes,

despite the dotcom crash and growing monopolies, the net is still presented to an ever growing group of usually young (and usually male) developers as a ‘pure’ medium; an abstract mathematical environment, untouched by society, neutral of class, gender or race, capable of ‘routing around’ problems caused by the dirty world outside (Lovink 2002: 10).

The Internet Spectacle

What does the process of the closure or purification of the Internet look like in practice? One of the most frequently cited examples here is perhaps America Online (Lessig 1999, Tetzlaff 2000). America Online (AOL) is the single largest Internet provider in the world. As a part of the entertainment corporation AOL Time Warner, the company not only has “more than 35 million members of its flagship AOL service,” but it also owns the company Net-scape with 48 million registered users of the service, Internet service provider CompuServe with 3 million members, the ICQ messaging service with over 120 million registered users, the AIM messaging client, and the sound player Winamp (AOL 2002). It is then no exaggeration for the company to proclaim on its website that “America Online has played a major role in creating the consumer online experience worldwide.” Essentially, the strategy of AOL is to capture the novice computer user who wants to access the Internet from his or her home computer. For this purpose, AOL gives away free software packages that consist of functionally reduced programs for typical Internet services such as email or the World Wide Web and advertises these packages on its website in a discourse of ease and simplicity: “You’ll be enjoying the benefits of America Online in no time!” Ironically, AOL calls the users’ dependency on simplified programs ‘netwise.’ A corresponding website (Internet Education Foundation 2003) that poses as a public benefit organization but is run by, among others, AOL, AT&T, VISA, Amazon, Microsoft, and the People for the American Way Foundation, promotes a climate of general mistrust and fear in which the openness of net-scapes “has become synonymous to child pornography and computer hackers” (Lovink 2002: 335). Afraid of such Net criminals, the user turns to AOL to lose basic control over his or her Internet freedoms. As Lawrence Lessig writes,

There is no public space where you could address all members of AOL. There is no town hall or town meeting where people can complain in public and have their complaints heard by others. There is no space large enough for citizens to create a riot. The owners of AOL, however, can speak to all (Lessig 1999: 68).

We might conceptualize AOL’s active closure of the American net-scapes as the spectacle of the Net. The notion of the spectacle that we will adopt for this essay is based on Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (Debord 1994 [1967]). Although it is difficult to summarize the metaphors that Debord uses to characterize (or rather, to invoke an intuitive understanding of) the concept of the spectacle, we can perhaps say that the spectacle is essentially a shift in societal relations that is very similar to our notion of the fractal nature of capitalism: it is the result of the commodification of time. The spectacle appears at the point in which the linguistic turn of capitalism that turns information into a cultural commodity is complete, at the “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life” (Debord 1994 [1967]: 29). In the condition of the spectacle, the ideal commodity is as ethereal and ubiquitous as the products of America Online to the point at which “The real consumer thus becomes a consumer of illusion. The commodity is this illusion, which is in fact real, and the spectacle is its most general form” (Debord 1994 [1967]: 32). The spectacle sells to us images of our societal relations and posits those images as more desirable than the social relation itself. This is perhaps the crucial aspect of the concept of the spectacle: in order to perpetuate itself as a system, the spectacle installs into social formations an always already made choice for the spectacle as total commodity: “it is the spectacle as a whole which is advertised and desired” (Plant 1992: 24). Recognizing that our field of cultural studies is not different from non-academic social formations, the spectacle might also explain why we hardly begin to pose the cultural question of the Internet and why we often perceive technology as a seamless, determined structure.

Importantly, however, we should recognize that a contradiction lies at the heart of the spectacle: “the same technical infrastructure that is capable of abolishing labor must at the same time preserve labor as a commodity” (Debord 1994 [1967]: 31). One the one hand, the spectacle is an almost “total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system” (Debord 1994 [1967]: 13). Although the replacement of manual labor through the automation of production is proceeding in an ever-increasing speed with the help of networked computing, we must be made to believe that our labor essentially continues to have the fixed characteristics that it had in industrial society. It is at this juncture at which the cycle of feeding us part of the spectacle-as-commodity while still keeping the system intact where the spectacle loses credibility. We might view the practices of cultures of dissent on the Internet that we will discuss in the following section as micro-struggles that are attempting to disturb the spectacle by getting at some of the critical nodes of its increasingly contradictory network to install a perhaps more democratic or humane version of technology.

  1. Networks

    1. Hackers

The ‘hacker culture’ is actually a loosely networked collection of subcultures that is nevertheless conscious of some important shared experiences, shared roots, and shared values. It has its own myths, heroes, villains, folk epics, in-jokes, taboos, and dreams. Because hackers as a group are particularly creative people who define themselves partly by rejection of ‘normal’ values and working habits, it has unusually rich and conscious traditions for an intentional culture less than 40 years old.

Jargon File 4.3.1

The Internet is the primary sphere in which activisms against the spectacle emerge. Following Geert Lovink, we can divide such activisms into three basic groups: activisms within an existing movement, between movements, or entirely as virtual protest (Lovink 2002: 266). While some of these movements are an extension of real-life organizations such as the websites of Greenpeace or Amnesty International, other movements take place primarily in the net-scapes themselves such as the practice of hacking. Since cultural studies has traditionally put an emphasis on ‘subcultures’ such as skinheads or mods (Hall and Jefferson 1993), it has now singled out hackers as the seemingly most important, coherent group of dissent on the Internet (Thomas 2002). But is hacking really a practice that is directed against the Internet spectacle? Can we conceive hacker culture as a homogeneous whole? And if not, how can we reformulate the practice of hacking in a meaningful way?

Wake up, Neo

The revolutionary capabilities that cultural studies ascribes to hacker culture are not easily qualified. The reason for this might be that hacker culture differs from other forms of activism on the Internet that we will discuss below in that

the substance, the content of hacker culture, is derived from mainstream culture’s embrace of and, simultaneously, confusion about technology. It is a culture in one way completely divorced from mainstream culture, yet in another way completely dependent upon it (Thomas 2002: 4).

Thus, any interpretation of hacker culture must largely be based on the fictional descriptions of hackers as an imagined community (Anderson 1991) in the mainstream media. A cultural commodity such as the movie trilogy The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers 1999) might then point us to some of the crucial aspects in our diagnosis of hackers as a culture of dissent on the Internet (Irwin 2002). The first part of the trilogy is one of the more interesting depictions of hacker culture in mainstream media, and it revolves around several critical issues: the way in which the figure of the hacker is constructed as an amateur opposition to professional corporate authority and power, the notion of a simulated reality, and the capacity of hackers as a marginal social formation to free humanity from oppression. Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves), the main character of The Matrix, works as a program writer for the software company Metacortex, whereas he spends his spare time in the net-scapes under the hacker alias ‘Neo,’ secretly pursuing the search for a phenomenon that he does not know anything about: the Matrix. In the course of the movie, Anderson finds out that he is actually living in the Matrix, a neural interactive simulation that has been fabricated by a regime of intelligent machines that uses human bodies as mere batteries for their culture’s energy supply while the humans are actually hallucinating a normal life in the late twentieth century. The movie constructs Anderson’s hacker identity as more meaningful than his professional life, and it suggestively depicts how the power structures of informational capital attempt to reincorporate Neo into their logic. Anderson’s professional life is contrasted in at least two scenes in the movie to his hacker practice. In one key scene, Anderson is reprimanded by his boss for being too late for work:

You have a problem with authority, Mr. Anderson. You believe that you’re special, that somehow the rules don’t apply to you. Obviously, you are mistaken. This company is one of the top software companies in the world, because every single employee understands that they are part of a whole. Thus, if an employee has a problem, the company has a problem.

In another key scene, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), a powerful computer program that roams the neural simulation in search for critical and harmful human minds, warns Anderson that only his one life as program writer for a respectable software company has a future. As a hacker, however, Anderson is “guilty of virtually every computer crime we have a law for.” In both scenes, Smith and Anderson’s boss insist on a strict separation of Anderson’s professional time and the amateur hacking practice of Neo: his harmful hacker life should be concluded for the benefit of greater efficiency in his programmer life, or perhaps more accurately, Neo should implement his ‘good’ hacking skills into his professional life while he should organize his free time like a work schedule. In The Matrix, the hacker aspect of Anderson ultimately triumphs when he proclaims “My name is Neo!” before crushing Agent Smith under an approaching subway train. It is not clear, however, how exactly a the practice of hacking would be more meaningful than Anderson’s office work: from the outside, he essentially spends his time typing away in front of a computer in both lives.

The Matrix relies on a critique of the programmed neural simulation in order to make a meaningful distinction between the two lives. To this end, hacker leader Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) speculates about the constructed character of reality in the movie. Morpheus is a charismatic hacker who travels the real existing, desolate earth together with a small crew aboard his hovercraft Nebuchadnezzar in the late twenty-second century. Like the other hackers, he trains Neo for combat against software agents such as Smith with a program that the hackers call ‘The Construct.’ Inside this program, Morpheus provokes Neo to enable him to overcome the principles of gravity and mass during combat in the Matrix: “What is real? How do you define real? You think that’s air you’re breathing now?” In fact, this discourse of the real in The Matrix explicitly refers to Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulations in at least two instances (Baudrillard 1994): Neo hides illegal software in a hollowed-out copy of the book, and when inside the Construct, Morpheus welcomes Neo to a neural simulation of the desolate real earth with the words: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” From the hackers’ perspective, the Matrix is essentially a prison to keep human beings under perfect control. As Morpheus says: “You are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch: a prison for your mind.” The discourse on the real in The Matrix is then a negative comment on the naturalization of the spectacle in the age of networked computing: the movie powerfully evokes the “false consciousness of time” that the spectacle of cyberspace installs in the net-scapes (Debord 1994 [1967]: 114). Ultimately, however, such a philosophy of the real does not lead to a plausible conclusion. As Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), a hacker who eventually cooperates with the agents, recognizes: “The Matrix can be more real than this world.”

It is a third discourse in The Matrix, however, that is perhaps the most problematic in relation to a politics of hacking: the notion of hackers as a marginal social formation that can free humanity from oppression. This discourse has essentially two aspects. One aspect is the idea that the hacker group on board of the Nebuchadnezzar is an elite or avant-garde. As Morpheus says:

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. And when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters, the very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged, and many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.

This ideology of hackers as an avant-garde social formation that will eventually lead the masses to revolution and overthrow the existing regime of the machines follows a version of traditional Marxism that relies on a dominated class as a revolutionary subject. In such a framework, the iconic figure of Neo becomes the leader of the avant-garde, ‘the One’ who is able to bend the rules of the Matrix to his liking. The other aspect is the perfect world of ultimate freedom that lies beyond the current condition, “a world without rules or control, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible,” as Neo says. Essentially, The Matrix then fails to reconceptualize activisms and reiterates instead a monolithic notion of ‘resistance’ that is typical of earlier, failed Marxisms (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 38-61). If we remind ourselves that Debord characterizes the spectacle as “capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image,” we might diagnose the retreat to such monolithic notions as a symptom of the movie apparatus itself (Debord 1994 [1967]: 24). After all, The Matrix is a product of the AOL Time Warner corporation and thus part of the spectacle—like all critical cultural commodities, it purports the very idea it set out to critique. Nonetheless, if hacker culture “is a culture in one way completely divorced from mainstream culture, yet in another way completely dependent upon it” (Thomas 2002: 4), we might now begin to recognize some of the paradoxes of hacker culture that cannot be regarded as a coherent, monolithic subculture that is resisting the spectacle, but as a heterogeneous culture that might follow many contradictory ideologies.

Hacker Ethics

The limits of the hacker ideology that The Matrix purports are mirrored in real life hacker culture by equally contradictory ideologies. Even though these limits have been insightfully described by Andrew Ross in his essay “Hacking away at the Counterculture” (Ross 1991), many other books about hacker culture, especially the sensationalist reports about hero-hackers (Stoll 1990, Sterling 1992, Hafner and Markoff 1995), have not taken into account the heterogeneous nature of hackers as a social formation (Thomas 2002, Himanen 2001; see my critique in Ziegler 2002). If the difficulty in describing hacker culture as a more complex phenomenon lies in the fact that we can conceive hackers largely through mainstream media, it becomes all the more important for cultural critics to qualify the hacker self-assertion that the group has “important shared experiences, shared roots, and shared values” and “unusually rich and conscious traditions” that make hackers a coherent group (Raymond 2003). A first step toward understanding hacker culture as a complex cultural phenomenon is then the recognition that the self-image of hackers and their depiction in the mainstream media does not differ from earlier ‘subcultures.’ Like other social formations, hacker culture is more about cultural rituals and power structures than it is about malicious computer programs.

Similar to the neural simulation of the Matrix, the world of hacker culture is essentially a place that is governed by mathematical laws with the computer at its core (Cubitt 2000). Ellen Ullman suggestively describes this place in her book Close to the Machine: as a programmer, her social environment gradually recedes in importance as the process of programming becomes more important and her wish to live in a “calm, mathematical place” more alluring (Ullman 1997: 21). Although Ullman’s program is really a software for a municipal social service and thus entwined in a complex social configuration, it has “the beauty of a crystal” in the abstract world of computer code (Ullman 1997: 21). Such a view of net-scapes as being essentially governed by mathematical laws results in an outlook of the hacker as a person that has a mysterious, deeper insight into this mathematical world. The definition of hackers that Douglas Thomas gives in his recent book Hacker Culture, follows this idea: Thomas sees hackers as “a group of computer enthusiasts who operate in a space and manner that can be rightly defined by a sense of boundless curiosity and a desire to know how things work” (Thomas 2002: 3). As Thomas goes on to write, “‘True hacks’ are the result of […] taking advantage of […] flaws, oversights, or errors in an original way” (Thomas 2002: 43). Such distinctions, however, largely serve the purpose of constructing hackers into an authentic, ‘subcultural’ group. In fact, they follow a certain notion of elite hacking that excludes youth computer freaks, pejoratively labeled ‘script kiddies’ by older hackers, from its self-image. An inappropriately romanticized, homogeneous version of hero-hackers is the result for cultural studies.

Finally, as we have seen in The Matrix, hacker culture does not stand in opposition to office work structures. On the contrary, the culture in part “celebrates high productivity, maverick forms of creative work energy, and an obsessive identification with on-line endurance” (Ross 1991: 121). Pekka Himanen has made this work attitude fruitful for his business book The Hacker Ethic. Himanen proposes a new work ethic for our time that “cannot be found in work or leisure but has to arise out of the nature of activity itself” (Himanen 2001: 151). While Himanen’s concept is designed to supplant the monolithic character of manual labor with a more complex notion of informational work, his theory is really a version of the idea that mathematical principles are underlying our world in which ‘chaos theory’ has been taken up as a metaphor that seemingly best describes the interactions of social formations with its paradigm of emergence. We can then interpret Himanen’s concept of hacker work with Sean Cubitt as a version of the chaos theory of the social sphere (Cubitt 2000: 139). If we follow the notion of hacking that remains prevalent in books such as Thomas’s Hacker Culture, hacking becomes identical to office work as a practice that, as Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) writes, leaves “little or no leisure time for collecting information about specific political causes, building critical perspective, or designating contestational sites” (Critical Art Ensemble 1995: 19). As CAE goes on to caution, “Without such information, hacker politics will continue to be extraordinarily vague.”

Household Hacking

If it is not the mediatized culture of hero-hackers that works actively against the spectacle, perhaps we can reformulate the notion of hacking in a more meaningful way to help conceive such an activism. Another look at mainstream media hacker discourse might be useful in order to understand in what way our notion of hacking has to be altered. In American media, the practice of hacking has been associated with discourses of terrorism and criminality of the one hand, and with infection, disease, or contamination on the other (see Wald 2000 for a more general discussion). For instance, Ian Hopper’s article “Destructive I Love You computer virus strikes world wide” does not describe how to secure a home computer against a virus, but it engages in a rhetoric of war and disease: a “self-propagating and destructive” virus “wrought hundreds of millions of dollars in software damage and lost commerce” from innocent corporations (Hopper 2000). Andrew Ross has connected hacking to the wider notion of a general American fear of viruses in his article “Hacking away at the Counterculture” (Ross 1991). The website is a recent example of such a general fear that equates hacking with terrorism, war, and contamination in society at large. The website has been installed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and it should inform American citizens about possible preparations against ‘terrorist’ attacks. The website rhetoric essentially seems to install a climate of suspicion across all spheres of American society: “Terrorists are working to obtain biological, chemical, nuclear and radiological weapons, and the threat of an attack is very real” (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2003). The website advises Americans to be “prepared for the unexpected” and to be able to “make it on your own for at least three days, maybe longer.” Essentially, as Ross argues, the rhetoric of this website mirrors early AIDS hysteria in its discourse of microscopic particles that “hurt you if they get into your body, so think about creating a barrier between yourself and any contamination.” The bottom line of such propaganda in the American mainstream media seems to be that “it is important to be suspicious.”

What lies at the heart of such rhetoric? At the heart of such rhetoric seems to be the closure of net-scapes and the purification of the domain of the professional programmer and the security analyst, authorized people who do not play with computers but work with them. To the extent that cultural studies can free itself from regarding the practice of hacking as taking part in such a discourse of distinction and purification, hacker practice will be a fruitful notion: it might contribute to a non-reductionist way of seeing the links between micro-struggles in electronic networks. If we follow the myths about hero-hackers and malicious viruses, however, we are taking part in the closure. Recognizing that there is no hacker culture as a homogeneous whole, we might then follow Andrew Ross and extend the notion of hacking to include “all high-tech workers, no matter how inexpert, who can interrupt, upset, and redirect the smooth flow of structured communications that dictates their positions in the social network of exchange and determines the pace of their work schedules” (Ross 1991: 124). In short, we should regard hacking as any ‘amateur’ activity that disturbs the rationale of the spectacle of cyberspace. To be sure, such amateur practice will necessarily be “deficient in relation to the proper balance demanded by professionalism” (Ross 1991: 118; on science and amateurism see Cubitt 2000: 130). But it is precisely this deficiency that comes with our reformulation of the notion of hacking that might open up spaces for dissent against the spectacle. As we will see in the last part of this essay, our rejection of a clear-cut politics of hacking and our turn to the notion of everyday or ‘household’ hacking does not mean that we are engaging in the practice of cultural studies to seek out a new group of resistance such as the mods or skins that always fails the test of real-life politics. Instead, we are using hacker culture as a thing to think through our own critical practice. From this perspective, it is the idea of everyday hacking that will have the most to offer.

    1. Public Domains

The state can't give you free speech, and the state can't take it away. You're born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.

Utah Phillips

Hackers are not the only group that is regarded as a potential site of ‘resistance’ by cultural studies. There are less prominent Internet activisms within and between movements such as the free software movement and privacy activists that seem to work actively against the closure of the net-scapes (see DiBona, Ockman and Stone 1999 for an overview). Although such movements are engaged in important struggles, however, their practice is perhaps grounded in problematic ideologies of community, privacy, and the public sphere that a critical cultural studies should qualify: it is not clear how free software, email encryption programs, or electronic governance (or ‘e-democracy’) will lead to an increase of social justice without having any negative effects. At the bottom, many Internet activisms rely on the idea of an inevitable information revolution that has been developed in prosperous Western think tanks and policy institutes. This conception largely provides the rationale for a “restructuring, legitimization for social dislocation, and exhortation toward a radiant future” as much as it does inspire fictions of human commonwealth and freedom (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 37). Instead of such fictions of the free software movement and privacy activists, the ‘sarai’ might be a more useful notion: as an “enclosed space […] where travelers and caravans can find shelter, sustenance and companionship” (Lovink 2001), the notion of the sarai conceptualizes an open public domain in which hacking as a necessarily deficient, amateur practice might take place.

Programmed Publics

Internet privacy activists and the free software movement share an underlying project: the struggle for a digital public space. Whereas the first group has the reconstruction of a version of the Greek public space as a goal, the latter seeks to replace monolithic structures in software programming (Windows) by the concept of a bazaar-style program development (Linux). Both groups, however, essentially agree on a specific ideology of community, privacy, and the public sphere that expresses itself in an emphasis of a version of a ‘virtual commons.’ In the view of the Center for Digital Democracy, such a digital commons takes the digital form of the public space that we have in real life: “Just as we have set aside public space (e.g., parks, beaches, town squares) in the real-world landscape, so must we protect and promote a portion of the online world for noncommercial speech and public interest applications” (Center for Digital Democracy 2003). While this version of the digital commons might still include a central planning, more radical libertarian projects do away with this notion. The EFF, for instance, advances an extreme idea of an uncontrolled Internet on its website: “Imagine a world where technology can empower us all to share knowledge, ideas, thoughts, humor, music, words and art with friends, strangers and future generations. That world is here and now, made possible with the electronic network—the Internet.” As the EFF continues to proclaim, “governments and corporate interests worldwide are trying to prevent us from communicating freely through new technologies” (Electronic Frontier Foundation 2003). The Free State Project (FSP) follows the same radical concept ( Since its inception in September 2001, the goal of FSP has been to convince 20,000 libertarians to move into a single state of the U.S. to take over the government of the state by voting for the same party. The ‘virtual commons’ of the FSP consists of a place for everyone who supports the “abolition of all income taxes, elimination of regulatory bureaucracies, repeal of most gun control laws, repeal of most drug prohibition laws, complete free trade, decentralization of government, and widescale privatization” (Freestateproject 2003). Essentially, the function that government takes on in all of these versions of a digital commons is nothing more than “the protection of citizens’ rights to life, liberty, and property.”

Although cultures of free software originate from a very different technocultural tradition, a similar version of public space underlies their ideology. Historically, free software culture can perhaps be traced back to the beginning of the home computer: before Bill Gates had programmed MS-DOS, computer programs were developed and traded along with their source code free of charge; the goal of the industry was to sell expensive mainframe computers and not the software to corporations or research facilities. When the Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds developed Linux, a smaller version of the Unix operating system that ran on the earlier mainframes, a dichotomy between proprietary software and free software was installed: the software kernel was soon enhanced by free applications under the General Public License (GPL) that make Linux today the primary alternative to a Windows operating system. Although there is a radical version of the free software ideology and a version that is more open to marketing Linux/GNU programs, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Open Source Initiative (OSI), both versions’ concepts of the positive characteristics of free software as opposed to proprietary software are similar. As programmer-activist Oxblood Ruffin writes:

In non-technical terms, a closed program would be like a menu item in a restaurant for which there was no recipe. An open program would be like a dish for which every ingredient, proportion, and method of preparation was published. Microsoft is an example of a closed, hi-tech restaurant; Linux is its stellar opposite, an open code cafeteria where all is laid bare (Oxblood Ruffin 2002).

Richard Stallman, the founder of the FSF, follows this logic: “When a program has an owner, the users lose freedom to control part of their own lives” (Stallman 2001: 179). From the perspective of the OSI, Eric Raymond writes that ‘open source’ software enhances “the possibility to help individuals become better able to acquire knowledge and disseminate their thoughts to others” (email to the author). The reductionist notion of public space of free software activists then follows the binary concept of much of the libertarian ideology of the digital commons. For them, using proprietary software instead of free software becomes identical to “living in an authoritarian society as opposed to a free one” (Oxblood Ruffin 2002).

Imagined Communities

What is the backdrop of such ideologies of freedom, privacy, and the community? And what are some of its deficiencies? On the one hand, these ideologies follow a perhaps specifically North American myth of communal action against a centralized government. If we follow science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, a “certain anarchical tinge deep in the American soul delights in causing confusion and pain to all bureaucracies, including technological ones” (Sterling 1992). Indeed, there is a complex history of civil disobedience in America, perhaps beginning with Henry David Thoreau’s Resistance to Civil Government that is often quoted on activist websites. Thoreau is highly critical of the American government whose effectiveness he compares to a “wooden gun to the people” (Thoreau 1992 [1849]: 226). Politics, in Thoreau’s view, is a game of power, and voting is similar to betting on one of the players. Thus, he concludes that “we should be men first, and subjects afterward” (Thoreau 1992 [1849]: 227). Such a libertarian stance, however, is limited in at least two aspects: On aspect is the central paradox of American libertarianism that is ingrained in this version of freedom: “the most widely held communal value is that of individualism,” as Henry Giroux writes (Giroux 2000: 3). The other aspect is the monolithic notion of power that it is grounded on. As James Boyle has argued (Boyle 1997), such a notion of power is centrally exercised by a sovereign over a geographically limited population that is perfectly obedient to that power. This notion does not take into account the more complex characteristics of power in the net-scapes, and it also overlooks that the public space that it seeks to construct has historically been controlled by those very power structures: it “was limited to those who possessed social attributes such as education, wealth and masculinity” (Chaney 1994: 114).

In addition, such ideologies of public space are rhetorical fictions of collective life. Recognizing that there is a “symbolic dimension of community that exceeds its social function or formalist nature” (Fernback 1999: 209), perhaps we should follow Benedict Anderson’s characterization of these rhetorical fictions as ‘imagined communities.’ According to Anderson, all communities are imagined “because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson 1991: 6). However, even though the concept of the imagined community is increasingly used in cultural studies as a shorthand for the way in which a communal structure of feeling works, it does remain problematic. For once, the use of the term ‘imagined’ might suggest an opposition to a real community—even in the more radical notion that there are only imagined communities we sense a feeling of built-in nostalgia (Poster 2001: 122). More importantly, perhaps, these ideologies construct an essentially friction-free public space: they carry over a notion of peaceful citizenship into the net-scapes that is based on the idea that communication is essentially reasonable. As Vincent Mosco has cautioned (Mosco 2000), that notion does not differ from friction-free market ideology which relies on an informed customer who is able to chose reasonably between commodities. By constructing freedom and community as monolithic concepts, Internet libertarians and free software activists might themselves contribute to the closure of the net-scapes.

Another Public Space

How can we then conceive a public domain in which hacking as a deficient amateur practice could take place? At the heart of our attempt at a more fruitful conceptualization of the public domain might lie the recognition that “Public space does not exist except as a reification” (Critical Art Ensemble 1995: 40). If we want to open up the public domain for our reformulated hacking practice, we will have to disavow any homogeneous concept of community as a “a too harmonious, catholic term for the social dynamics within lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, and web sites” (Lovink 2002: 229). Outside of the discourses of hackers and free software activists lies the practice of the activist group Public Space Initiative (PSI). The goal of this group is to “spread democracy like a virus through the creation of public space” with the help of so-called Public Space Kits, manuals that describe the group’s understanding of public space (Public Space Initiative 2003). These manuals contain a very useful insight: “Public space is more like a verb than a noun, meaning it must be continually created and recreated.” Following PSI, we then have to replace our static notion of public space with a more fluid one and define our public domain as “the act of debating what is legitimate and what is illegitimate in a democratic society.” In cultural studies discourse, we might call such a more active notion of public space the turn to a radically constituted public domain. Hakim Bey has termed his version of such a public space in progress the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ). Although Bey does not explicitly mention net-scapes, his definition might also be applied to activisms on the Internet:

The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to reform elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it. Because the State is concerned primarily with Simulation rather than substance, the TAZ can ‘occupy’ these areas clandestinely and carry on its festal purposes for quite a while in relative peace (Bey 2002: 117).

But even though Bey’s metaphor of the TAZ places a strong emphasis on the active nature of the struggles over public space, his version still presupposes a relatively monolithic state power and it purports a romanticized picture of a guerrilla force. In addition, it does not allow for a changing concept of public space as a verb in the course of the struggle for ‘liberation.’

The Sarai Project has perhaps developed a more useful concept of the public domain. Sarai is a media lab in Delhi that seeks to connect scholars, media activists, software programmers, and artists internationally through its website and locally in the lab itself. On its website, the group emphasizes that its essential aim is to facilitate meetings between people rather than to predetermine the rules for a discussion: in many south Asian languages, sarai means simply “An enclosed space in a city, or, beside a highway, where travelers and caravans can find shelter, sustenance and companionship.” The Sarai Project then understands public space different from Bey. Its public domain “comes into being whenever people gather and begin to communicate, using whatever means that they have at hand, beyond the range of the telescope or the merchant, and outside the viewing platform of the microscope of the censor” (Lovink and Sengupta 2001: v). Thus, it is the sarai that might serve as an ideal setting for storytelling as a “representation of shared beliefs” that is characteristic of communication as a ritual (Carey 1989: 18). The open notion of public space that the sarai entails might then serve us as a metaphor for the kind of public space that we need to combine networks of knowledge on different levels: ‘amateur,’ street knowledge, technical knowledge, and critical academic discourse alike.

    1. Activisms

Tactical media are post-1989 formations. They are a set of dirty little practices, digital micro-politics if you like. Tactical media inherit the legacy of ‘alternative media’ without the counterculture label and ideological certainty of previous decades.

Geert Lovink

Outside of much writing about more prominent groups of dissent such as hackers and the free software movement lie the so-called new social movements. Although these movements have attracted the attention of sociology (Bourdieu 1998, Touraine 1971), they largely remain a blank spot for cultural studies. If cultural studies should turn to fluid notions of amateur activism that take place in a digital sarai, some of the Internet extensions of these new social movements might provide useful insights. For instance, activisms such as Free Radio Berkeley, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or Witness combine everyday hacking with old and ‘new media’ alike into a sort of electronic bricolage. To be sure, there is also a version of hacking that follows such a notion: the ‘hacktivism’ movement that emphasizes an amateur tinkering with electronics as opposed to rational conversation theory and a mathematical world model that has the computer and the hero-programmer at its center. Hacktivism and other activist micro-movements then constitute ‘dirty little practices’ that are using the net-scapes for a “process of mutual discovery, recognition, and reinforcement” instead of a systematic ‘resistance’ (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 129). We should hasten to add at this point, however, that such micro-movements should not serve as the next revolutionary subject of cultural studies after hackers and free software programmers failed our test of politics. Rather, these movements should remind us that we have to qualify our own cultural studies practice: they can inspire us to replace our sense of inevitability and despair with a more optimistic outlook of political possibility and make us realize that the spectacle also reaches into the academic sphere.


What is hacktivism? In what way does its practice differ from traditional notions of hacking? Hacktivist practices take place on many levels: the New York Times website has been replaced by hacktivists with a call for the release of jailed hacker Kevin Mitnick; political activists have defaced the Indian government’s website by including photo documentation that calls attention to government-backed human rights violations in Kashmir, and the company Nike has been ‘hijacked’—the browsers of visitors to the company’s website were automatically redirected to an Australian labor rights organization. One historical, real-world precursor of the hacktivism movement was perhaps what critic Mark Dery describes as ‘cultural jamming.’ According to Dery (Dery 1993), the essential question of culture jamming is the problem of access to information: can activists appropriate the control over a corporation’s public image? At the height of what we have called above ‘semiotic radicalism,’ cultural jammers were engaged in semiotic struggles over advertisements on billboards and other means of symbolic communication. The Billboard Liberation Front (BLF), an activist group from San Francisco, was probably the first organization to prominently make use of such a ‘guerrilla semiotics.’ Recognizing that “to advertise is to exist and to exist is to advertise,” the BLF began to modify “the messenger RNA of capitalism” in 1977 by altering billboard messages (Napier & Thomas 2003). In a recent action, the group defaced one of the motives of Apple’s notorious ‘Think Different’ campaign: the claim was changed into ‘Think Disillusioned,’ and the company’s rainbow-colored apple logo became a skull. However, as billboards and magazine advertisements lose strategic importance to the practice of ‘fractal marketing’ in our time, cultural jamming loses the effectiveness that it had in the cycles of struggle during the semiotic turn of capitalism.

Hacktivism is a practice that has attempted to incorporate fractal capitalism into its outlook. The central insight of this movement is that capital becomes vulnerable in the net-scapes because it has become information. Or, as the Internet activist group Critical Art Ensemble puts it, “as far as power is concerned, the streets are dead capital” (Critical Art Ensemble 1995: 11). As a result, CAE has developed the notion of ‘electronic disturbance’ that follows this insight. As Ricardo Dominguez of the CAE writes, “If you disturb the Pentagon, it doesn’t really disturb the power; it doesn’t really disturb the tanks. […] But if you are a virtual company that only exists online, it’s an extremely powerful tool” (Dominguez 2002: 394). Supported by members of CAE, the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas has relied on such practice of electronic disturbance (Kowal 2002). It could in fact be argued that the CAE’s FloodNet tool has been instrumental in some of the success of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN): originating from a farmer’s rebellion in a rural region in southern Mexico, North American supporters of this group have conceived the tool and a website to continue to inform the mainstream media about its actions over the Internet. FloodNet is a simple program that is freely available on the Internet. The program sends multiple requests to a website, and as a result this website is effectively blocked from viewing when a sufficient number of users call up the site repeatedly with the tool. Similar to a highway blockage, FloodNet blocks Internet bandwidth ineffectively: not only the targeted website is rendered dysfunctional, but also its Internet neighborhood. With tools such as FloodNet, the notion of electronic disturbance then does not follow the hacker paradigms of efficiency and functionality on a high technical level while is also undermines the rhetoric of high-level computer crime of the government and the corporations.


While hacktivism is one way to use the Internet as a platform for action, there is a network of new social movements that use the net-scapes to enhance their real-life struggles. The way in which these new social movements use the Internet differs from the way in which hackers, for instance, use technology in that their websites constitute a map of activism in the form of interlinked .org-domain names: “A reader, a user, an audience member of a resistant web site can connect easily to another such site and in this way […] travel through a territory of cyberspace that has been occupied by a series of interconnected resistant websites” (Dominguez 1994). Such activist website can therefore enhance very different forms of real struggles that take place in different media. As a result, what might seem a conservative use of the Internet to promote the interests of a real-life activist group makes cyberspace in fact

important as a political arena, not, as some postmodern theorists suggest, because it is a sphere where virtual conflicts replace real struggles ‘on the ground,’ but because it is a medium within which terrestrial struggles can be made visible and linked with one another (Lovink 2002: 128).

For instance, the website of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) enhances the organization’s local struggle for labor rights to the Internet. CIW is a powerful traditional union based in Immokalee, Florida’s most important center for agricultural production. It represents the needs of a large population of Immokalee farm workers who spend most of the year in Southwest Florida and travel north to get jobs during the summer. On the website, CIW makes its demands known to a national audience. The organization requests “stronger laws and stronger enforcement against those who would violate workers’ rights, the right to organize on our jobs without fear of retaliation, and an end to indentured servitude in the fields” (Coalition of Immokalee Workers 2003). With the help of its Internet platform, CIW has succeeded in winning a negotiation about higher wages for its workers that even involved a direct intervention by Governor Jeb Bush. Similar to the EZLN, the Internet has proved a valuable forum for CIW to make their local struggle known to a wider audience.

Activist groups that are involved with struggles in different media also use the Internet as an enhancement for their practice. One of these groups is the video activist organization Witness. In 1991, the beating of Rodney King was filmed by a bystander with a home video camera. In the wake of the impact of resulting trials, musician Peter Gabriel founded Witness, an organization with the goal to make video equipment and training available to victims of human rights violations so that they will be able to record such violations. In its handbook Video for Change, Witness informs that it has trained over 125 groups from 47 countries in video advocacy and argues that it “has proven that technology offers rights defenders a powerful way to expose injustice and to uphold fundamental rights” (Witness 2000). Essentially, Witness makes possible a technologically a kind of enhanced storytelling that can be spread to almost anywhere in the world as a visual commodity to be inserted into a weak spot of the spectacle.

An often overlooked form of technocultural activism is micro radio activism (Fiske 1996). One of the influential groups of radio activists that has extended its practice into the net-scapes is Free Radio Berkeley (FRB), a micro power station that had been broadcasting in the Berkeley and Oakland region until it was substituted by Berkeley Liberation Radio. Essentially, micro power radio stations struggle against the domination of the airwaves by the mainstream media: according to the Federal Communications Commission, a radio station that has under 100 watts of power is illegal if it is not broadcasting in a rural area, thus it is effectively impossible for any activist group to run such a station that has “such a high cost of entry so that only the rich and well endowed can have a voice” (Free Radio Berkeley 2003). On its website, FRB offers radio kits, construction plans and other technical advice for building a micro power broadcast station with a coverage radius of 12-15 miles and a cost ranging from $1000-$2000. With such micro power stations that broadcast with only about 50 watts, FRB seeks to install local free speech forums that challenge the FCC power structures. In addition to such local radio stations that are using the Internet mainly to distribute technical knowledge, there are micro-radio stations that broadcast only over the Internet, such as the station Radio Reed Flute that aims its program at an audience in and from Afghanistan (Radio Reed Flute 2003). These stations have perhaps put the possibilities of networked computing to an even greater use in that they can collect and edit information through a decentralized network of producers and remain ‘on the cable’ even in times of armed conflict.

Tactical Media

Geert Lovink’s term ‘tactical media’ might be a useful theoretical notion with which we can conceive such hacktivist groups and dissenting micro-movements on the Internet and their amateur practices who are using the Net for a “process of mutual discovery, recognition, and reinforcement” (Lovink 2002: 129). It is this process that might constitute a democratic characteristic of the Internet, rather than reductionist notions of hero-hackers and free software programming. But what are tactical media? The notion of tactical media perhaps goes back to Foucault’s distinction between tactics and strategy: tactics are “the art of constructing, with located bodies, coded activities and trained aptitudes, mechanisms in which the product of various forces is increased by their calculated combination” (Foucault 1979: 167). Tactics then is the structure of power that lies at the heart of power structures in networked computing, whereas strategy as a more monolithic concept conceives those structures in societies of war. This is how Geert Lovink describes the meaning of tactics for Internet activism:

Tactical is referring to the ambiguity of more or less isolated groups and individuals, caught in the liberal-democratic consensus, working outside of the safety of Party or Movement, in a multi-disciplinary environment full of mixed backgrounds and expectations. Lacking a big picture and liberated from left dogmatism and ghetto group psychology, their new shapes of protest take viral forms, spreading with the speed of light. Tactical media mix old and new machinery and are not bothered by platforms or standards, resolution, or a bit of noise. The aim is not to reach purity. Nor is ‘polluting’ the image, sound, or text by definition an interesting deconstruction exercise (Lovink 2002: 259).

This notion of tactical is very similar to the game theory that James Carse has described in his book Finite and Infinite Games. Carse contrasts finite games that have a conclusion and a winner, and infinite games that continue forever without a winner. Finite games have many characteristics of the discourse of professionalism: the players are trained for winning the game and not educated for dealing with losing it; the play is serious because it presses for one conclusion and does not allow differences. However, Carse’s central thesis is that “It is the essential fluidity of our humanness that is irreconcilable with the seriousness of finite play” (Carse 1986: 46). Similar to Carse’s theory of infinite play, the notion of tactical media does away with some of the limitations of the notion of a systematic Internet ‘resistance.’ As we will see in the following section, concepts such as a revolutionary class or subject and a coherent counterculture might in fact be symptoms for closure in the thinking of dissenting social formations themselves. Perhaps the most important thing for us to learn from the ‘dirty little practices’ that follow the paradigm of household hacking, or bricolage, in a public, sarai-like space is then to be open to the deficiencies of our own outlook and at the same time realize that, perhaps because all other outlooks are deficient as well, the future is not closed to us. Or, to use the language of cultural studies, instead of a monolithic notion of ‘resistance’ such movements should inspire us to think of them as an ongoing dissent. We should think of this dissent in terms of a cyclical metaphor: it is more like a growing spiral of micro-struggles than like a monolithic block of revolution. It is a process-based, ‘fractal’ movement that acts upon capitalist structures but that is also informed and altered by them in many unforeseeable ways.

  1. Revolutions

    1. Dominations

It's not a question of worrying or hoping for the best, but of finding new weapons.

Gilles Deleuze

If we do not find a new, monolithic notion of ‘resistance’ in a revolutionary group on the Internet but many ‘fractal’ micro-struggles, the significance for critical academic work in the practice of groups such as the Free Radio Berkeley or Critical Art Ensemble might lie in our recognition of the reductionism of a ‘clean’ and coherent cultural studies. It is the idea of such an academic practice that might be a result of the closures around us: critical positions in general seem impossible as the flows of capitalism become increasingly ubiquitous. The critical academic practice to praise networked computing as a democratic or revolutionary field (Thomas 2002, Bolter 1991, Landow 1997) then becomes a humanist version of the libertarian coalition that is a symptom of the closure of the Internet. Concepts of hero-hackers and a free electronic public domain are essentially grounded in the millennial imagination that interprets networked computing as an entire new step for mankind, a technological revolution. If we use the everyday micro-movements of tactical media activism on the Net as a ‘thing to think with’ (Bell 2001), how can we employ fluid, pragmatic activisms as a critique of the malling of not only the Internet, but critical thinking itself? In this section, we will see how we might rethink our notions of ‘resistance,’ postmodernisms, power theories, rhizomes, and eventually cultural studies itself based on some of our insights from the above discussion. We will see how the notion of an open or ‘autonomous’ Marxism and its enhanced concept of power might begin to route us around the closure of critical academic practice.

Deconstructing Resistance

A key concept during much of the history of cultural studies has been the search for a revolutionary subject that would overthrow the rule of capital (Duncombe 2002). As we have seen, this search has now reached cultures of dissent on the Internet such as hackers (Thomas 2002) and the free software movement (DiBona, Ockman and Stone 1999). If we have critiqued romanticized versions of these movements above, we might try to understand at this point why cultural studies would interpret them as coherent social formations of ‘resistance’ at all. What makes us participate in the mythmaking and marketing rhetoric over ever-new upgrades of activism? How could the notion of ‘resistance’ so easily get transferred over to what some theorists regards as a monolithic apparatus of capitalistic domination? If we go back to one of the earlier works in cultural studies, Raymond Williams’s book Television, we might see where some of the framework for this libratory ideology of the ‘Left’ is grounded (Williams 1974). Being one of the few coherent discussions about one technological phenomenon, Television essentially constructs the medium as a cultural channel whose message is open to a radical reinterpretation by the viewers. Williams thus follows active audience theory that seeks to counter monolithic theories of the seamless control of television over the viewer. Writing in 1974, Williams extends a positive notion of audience power back to older media such as the book when he writes that “there was no way to teach a man to read the Bible which did not also enable him to read the radical press” (Williams 1974: 125). On the other hand, he predicts networked computing to have emancipatory possibilities: computers will become “the contemporary tools of the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy” because they enable the “recovery of effective communication in complex urban and industrial societies” (Williams 1974: 145). A more recent attempt to conceive a ‘resistance’ in everyday life has been associated with John Fiske and his book Understanding Popular Culture. Not necessarily being a theory of technological ‘resistance,’ Fiske’s framework does nonetheless extend to cultures of dissent on the Internet in that it relocates critical practice in the very act of consuming a cultural commodity such as a computer itself. Underlying Fiske’s notion of ‘lifestyle resistance’ are two central assumptions: the first is that more abstract social antagonisms are always built into specific cultural commodities: “Popular culture always is part of power relations; it always bears traces of the constant struggle between domination and subordination, between power and various forms of resistance to it or evasions of it” (Fiske 1999: 19). The other assumption is that mainstream culture is never a culture of domination, since it is essentially a popular culture in the sense of a culture-of-the-many, and such a “is formed always in reaction to, and never as part of, the forces of domination” (Fiske 1999: 43). From this perspective, even “Tearing or bleaching ones jeans is a tactic of resistance” (Fiske 1999: 29).

But what are some of the underlying problems of such concepts of ‘resistance’ in cultural studies? Essentially, they cannot depart from a view that in the final instance equates “electricity and electrical power, electronics and cybernetics, computers and information with a new birth of community, decentralization, ecological balance, and social harmony” (Carey 1989: 114). Williams’s interpretation of television, for instance, is based on the notion that the basic reason for social conflict is insufficient electronic communication and isolation in urban life, a notion that also lies at the heart of the Habermasian public sphere (Habermas 1985). The history of technology, however, offers both supporting and contradicting evidence for this contention. Thus, while the printing press was instrumental in publishing leaflets during the German peasant wars (Dominguez 1994), it was also expected to eradicate ignorance and provincialism and lead to an international network of human peace and understanding (Carey 1989: 190). Clearly, the latter development has not yet come full cycle. In fact, as Geert Lovink writes, “Email is becoming part of everyday life, as did television, the vacuum cleaner, and the refrigerator. The fact that one can surf the web on a hand-hold device has not turned the world upside down” (Lovink 2002: 5). On the other hand, John Fiske’s concept of ‘lifestyle resistance’ has limitations. Fiske’s framework is based on a rhetoric of appropriation: it plausibly describes the semiotic guerrilla activism of the Billboard Liberation Front that appropriates the symbolic meanings that are attached to cultural commodities for a ‘resistant’ use. In fractal capitalism, however, ‘lifestyle resistance’ as a creative practice increasingly becomes a problematic concept. As Lovink cautions (Lovink 2002: 255-256), perhaps the discourse of appropriation has to be dropped altogether: an individual might wear Reggae fashion but at the same time might have no idea what the political aspect of Reggae culture is all about. In our time, it has become impossible to equate fashion or lifestyle with a political practice. At the heart of the ideologies of ‘resistance’ then lies a problematic, binary logic of domination and dissent that romanticizes the latest activism while it perhaps also paints a monolithic picture of the power structures of capital. In fact, it could be argued that much of cultural studies’ “mantric repetitions of struggle, empowerment, resistance, subordination and domination” are in fact a symptom of this binarism itself—instead of explaining the closure of the Net, they simply develop a nostalgia for a cycle of ‘resistance’ that many of its younger advocates have not even personally witnessed (Garnham 1997: 57). But do not such criticisms entail their own ineffectiveness? Do they not construct their own position as weaker than it actually is? What might be a key recognition for our critical practice that leads us to view our own technocultural struggles in a more fluid, open and non-monolithic way? Regarding cultures of dissent on the Internet, it might be the “perceived newness of the Internet” (Sterne 1999: 258) that is limiting contemporary activist movements. Cultural studies seem to have internalized the domination/‘resistance’ binarism when it asks reductionist questions such as “Will new media technologies break down barriers, increase access, and allow individuals to freely create, or will they assist in creating new hierarchies and new methods of institutional control” (Sholle 2002)? “Will cyberspace promise privacy or access” (Lessig 1999: 7)? Reminding ourselves of the pragmatic outlook of micro-media activisms, we should recognize that our descriptive language which sees technology as either the harbinger of a free world or a dominating war machine essentially follows the logic of free market ideology. Or, as Raymond Williams puts it, “while we have to reject technological determinism, in all its forms, we must be careful not to substitute for it the notion of a determined technology” (Williams 1974: 124). We cannot remain forever in the logic of cultural studies to always seek out another group for ‘resistance’ only to write a book about how it fails in our test for politics. As James Carey warns,

The promotion of the illusion of an ‘electronic revolution’ borders on complicity by intellectuals in the myth-making of the electrical complex itself. The celebration of the electronic revolution is a process whereby the world of scholarship contributes the cults of engineering, mobility, and fashion at the expense of roots, tradition, and political organization (Carey 1989: 138).

Closures of Theory

There have been attempts of the ‘Left’ to depart from such shortcomings of cultural studies that essentialize ‘resistance’ and technology. In the academic sphere, these are the two related schools of thought of postmodernism and post-Marxism. Post-modernisms have done away with some of the problematic assumptions of much of monolithic theory making. Most importantly, some versions of postmodernism highlight the constructedness of the liberal subject not as an end in itself, but as a reason to inquire after the social construction of that subject. Following the work of Judith Butler (Butler 1990), for instance, Stuart Hall recognizes that identities are “produced in specific historical and institutional sites within specific discourse formats and practices” (Hall 2000: 5). But it is perhaps in the American academic appropriation of postmodernist philosophy that the school lost much of the radical political aspect and turned into monolithic ‘French theory.’ Instead of being a critique of the bourgeoisie, it seems that American postmodernism answers to the growing diversification of voices of interest that essentially follows a logic of streamlining of academia according to capitalist principles and standards; a development that is itself perhaps grounded on an American cultural studies’ frustration with the “inability to make tangible connections between the general conditions of life today and the practice of cultural analysis” (McRobbie 1994: 13). Recognizing the “banality of difference” in the American postmodernist outlook (Chaney 1994: 173), perhaps we could then label postmodernism with Bruno Latour as a symptom of and not a solution to fractal capitalism (Latour 1993: 46). The academic inertness and helplessness that results out of the ironic despair of postmodernism might then be the corner that the ‘Left’ has painted itself into in its appropriation of postmodernist discourses: the closure of oppositional thinking itself.

This closure has taken an additional turn in one of the last century’s most peculiar critical academic developments: post-Marxism. The notion of post-Marxism goes back to the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe whose project it has been to alter Marxism to fit some of the basic postmodernist stances (Laclau & Mouffe 1985). While it can be argued that, similar to postmodernism, post-Marxism does make some useful objections to traditional Marxism, the theory might have overshot the mark in its reformulation of postmodernist democracy: Laclau and Mouffe radically depart from several classic Marxist concepts such as the notion of a proletariat as the revolutionary class and the concept of a revolution itself. Instead of in a revolutionary class, post-Marxist theory seeks radical potential in the formation of the subject that is not constituted in any complete or essential way, or as Laclau writes, “self-determination is not the expression of what a subject already is but the result of its lack of being instead” (Laclau 1996: 55). The actual formation of the subject works through identification with arbitrary others; the subject emerges in the distance between this arbitrariness and the actual decision. Because the subject is also a part of a larger social formation, it is necessarily represented by another individual in a hegemonic relationship. This post-Marxist framework does not need ‘class’ as a revolutionary subject and opens some sort of agency through the presence of the hegemonic Other that always prevents any total power structure. On the other hand, it could be argued that the very attempt to conceive a post-Marxism that does away with notions of class and revolution in fact constitutes a dangerous critique of Marxist theory. If we follow Nick Dyer-Witheford, post-Marxism mistakes Marxism for capitalism as a target of attack: in its “refusal to acknowledge the full depth of capitalism’s subsumption of the planet, and its dismissal of the very political in intellectual tradition that has consistently applied itself to this issue, it is part of a problem of global life-threatening dimensions” and not part of the solution (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 12). Similar to postmodernism, the academic fashionability of Laclau and Mouffe then becomes a symptom of the closure of critical ‘Left’ thinking.

What is the outcome of the prevalence of postmodernism and post-Marxism in the academic sphere? Although both schools set out to critique the bourgeois subject and monolithic notions of class struggle for a reason, it seems that their result was in fact an inertia of critical academic practice to talk about critical political practice in other than ironic terms. According to Lawrence Grossberg, this inertia takes on three forms: the academic notions of “the impossibility of investing in the political”, “the active discouragement of any imagining of the possibility of political community,” and “the impossibility of articulating a theory and practice of agency” (Grossberg 1997: 3). These three commonplaces in today’s cultural studies departments lead to an academic pessimism that views capital as a seamless structure of domination which “renders practitioners powerless in the face of the enemy, whom it endows with fantastic properties”—ironically, such an outlook is not a critique of capital but a proof for the effectiveness with which the spectacle purports itself (Latour 1993: 125). In the name of academic advancement of their proponents in the present, the schools of postmodernism and post-Marxism then drive forward the closure of the academic sphere: they concede power over the future to capital while they are developing ever new portraits of the spectacle.

Notions of Power

A key problem for a critical cultural studies seems to be the inevitability of notions of structured domination that are connected to postmodernism and post-Marxism. The theory of power that continues to be most influential in cultural studies is connected to the society of discipline, a concept that Michel Foucault has developed in his book Discipline and Punish (Foucault 1979). Foucault uses Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon to illustrate how he interprets the structures of power in our society: in a fixed carceral setting, a central power might be watching our actions, and since we are not able to tell when we are being watched, we comply with the rules of that central power as if we were in fact under seamless surveillance. If we translate such a pessimistic view of power to cultures of dissent on the Internet, these cultures are fighting a dominant system of “monolithic, panoptical social control, effortlessly achieved through a smooth, endlessly interlocking system of networks of surveillance” (Ross 1991: 126). From this viewpoint, the Internet is the culmination of seamless control that now reaches into all of social sphere, home and workplace alike:

One integrated social formation of United States based hero-scientists and visionary bureaucrats performed an alchemy of technological and institutional innovation transforming electronic networks from prototypes designed to facilitate and safeguard military research into a worldwide digital environment of ever-expanding potential for the commercial exchange of information (Murphy 2002: 27-28).

But as insightful as this model might explain surveillance in fixed industrial settings, it might fall short of grasping the regime of mobile localization and authentication technologies that capital is installing in our time. For instance, it seems to be much easier for the Federal Commission of Communication (FCC) to control a micro-radio station such as Free Radio Berkeley than to shut down the decentralized network of editors that runs Radio Reed Flute entirely over the Internet. In his Postscript on Control Societies, Gilles Deleuze has attempted to theorize the new regime of power on the basis of his recognition that “Control societies are taking over from disciplinary societies” (Deleuze 2002: 318; italics in original). Deleuze argues that we are witnessing the breakdown of sites of confinement such as the panopticon and the installment of a regime of ‘silent authentication.’ We do not assume, like Foucault’s prisoner, that there is a central power that is watching us from his tower—we know that we are being watched, that our data is recorded each time we use our bonus card in a store and each time our computer sends an error message to Microsoft after Windows XP has crashed. In control societies, we actively participate in the rituals of control because we are so fascinated by our machines that we start control others with them in a playful way (Carey 1989: 195).

Henry Giroux writes that “Central to any practical politics of cultural studies is the need to reinvent power as more than resistance and domination, as more than a marker for identity politics, and as more than a methodological ploy for linking discourse to material relations of power” (Giroux 2000: 13). If we then recognize that the fashionability of ironic pessimism is nothing more than an aspect of the spectacle, the closure of America that is now reaching our critical academic practice, how can we conceive a notion of power that makes it possible for us to reformulate agency outside of the postmodern theoretical practice? It is at this point perhaps important to remind ourselves of the increasing paradox of the spectacle of the Internet: “the same technical infrastructure that is capable of abolishing labor must at the same time preserve labor as a commodity” (Debord 1994 [1967]: 31). Or, as CAE writes, “cyberspace is far from secure. It has expanded and mutated at such a rapid rate that security systems are unable to reconfigure and deploy themselves with equal speed” (Critical Art Ensemble 1995: 14-15). Dyer-Witheford describes a notion of Marxism that is largely discredited in our ‘post-Marxist’ time but that might answer this essential paradox of the spectacle with a positive notion of power: open or ‘autonomous Marxism.’ Essentially, such Marxism puts “its emphasis not just on the dominative power of capital, but on people’s capacity to contest that power” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 62). In a critical shift away from academic inertia in understanding societal power relations, open Marxism is connected to Antonio Negri’s concept of ‘cycles of struggle:’ that fact that resistant classes can change and become outdated as capital reaches new stages in its development does not necessarily imply the disappearance of class struggle itself (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 66). Thus, open Marxism might answer to our need for a more powerful, less inert and pessimistic notion of critical activism beyond ‘resistance.’ It reminds us that “We can accept that machines are stamped with social purposes without accepting the idea that all of them are so deeply implanted with the dominative logic of capital as to be rejected” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 71). Instead of conceiving our time as ruled by a total electronic empire, we should view our action as the next cycle of struggle in the net-scapes.

    1. Cycles

Only by treating the Internet as one site among many in the flow of economics, ideology, everyday life, and experience can Internet research become a vital intellectual and political component of media and cultural studies. Only be recognizing the Internet's banality can Internet research move beyond the clichés of the millennial imagination.

-- Jonathan Sterne

Following open Marxism, we might regard cultures of dissent on the Internet as a cycle of struggle in fractal capitalism. In what way then do we have to reformulate our understanding of democratic politics in our time alongside with our changed understanding of power on the Internet? Versions of ‘interactive’ politics, or e-democracy, in fact seem to come down to little more than the polling of political opinions and a following real-time adjustment of politics—a process that Stanley Aronowitz calls “the kabuki dance that passes for American politics” (Aronowitz and Menser 1996: 1). Net-scape politics as a slippery, open term might instead involve notions of micro-media bricolage, pragmatic amateurism, and making-do, rather than monolithic ‘resistance,’ professional hacking, and a well-structured concept of the public domain. Taking into account the more active notion of power of open Marxism, we should conceive an ongoing, open politics of the network that is radically context-dependent and pragmatic. Importantly, however, we should not follow the spectacle and its binarisms to conceive a ‘new and improved’ version of activism. This is not “an ideal moment to think up a 2.0 version of network utopia,” as Lovink warns (Lovink 2002: 18). But it might be the moment for a reformulation of critical practice that takes into account the insights of micro-movements on the Internet, and as a result, a key tactics of our critical work today must be the halting of the Internet as the place in which the logic of capital most rapidly advances.

Rhizomatic Net-scapes

What does a politics of the network look like? Critical theory has attempted to describe such a politics of the Internet by using the paradigm of the ‘rhizome’ (Negri and Hardt 2000, Dominguez 1994). This concept goes back to a section about rhizomes in Deleuze and Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze and Guattari use the concept of the rhizome as a metaphor within a complex, larger philosophical framework: in nature, a rhizome is a system of “taproots with a more multiple, lateral, and circular system of ramification, rather than a dichotomous one” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 5). When applied to a cultural commodity such as a book, the metaphor results in an insightful shift in the paradigms of inquiry: contrary to traditional literary theory, a book can be seen as “made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. To attribute the book to a subject is to overlook this working of matters, and the exteriority of their relations” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 3). The notion of the rhizome then asks after the functional aspect of the assemblage of aspects that temporarily constitute a book in their totality. The metaphor of the rhizome then seems to answer to some of our requirements for a more active notion of power in that it makes possible to conceive a cultural commodity such as the Internet or a book as “a whole micropolitics of the social field” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 7): it “ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” and thus follows our call for a radically contextual notion of activism (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 7)

But is the Internet a rhizome? To be sure, there are some similarities between the network of taproots and computers that might inspire us to speak of a rhizomatic character of the Internet. Similar to the Net, “any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 7). Like the rhizome, the system of links between networked computers “may be broken, shattered at given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 9). There are aspects of the Internet, however, that make it hard to characterize the Net as a rhizome (Hamman 1996). One of the more interesting passages of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s book Empire might illustrate this: Hardt and Negri start their characterization of the Internet with the statement that “The original design of the Internet was intended to withstand military attack” (Negri and Hardt 2000: 299), thus it is similar to the self-repairing rhizome. However, some critics have cautioned that the military origin of the Internet is really a computer history myth (Jones 1999: 2). In fact, this myth might be the result of the closure of academic critical thinking when this very thinking has played a central part in the inception of the Internet as a network between North American research facilities. Hardt and Negri go on to proclaim: “Since no one point in the network is necessary for communication among others, it is difficult for it to regulate or prohibit their communication” (Negri and Hardt 2000: 299). The Internet then seems to be the ideal “democratic model” with multiple entryways (Negri and Hardt 2000: 299) when in fact these entryways are not always open to all and might be restructured centrally by ICANN, an organization that controls the root server and the existence of Internet domain names. Essentially, then, the concept of the Internet as a rhizome seems to be problematic: in the final instance, we might regard that comparison as a theoretical appropriation of theory that is fashionable in contemporary activist movements themselves.

Situational Activisms

How can we conceive a politics of the Internet in a more useful way? Before we rush to find a new, perfect theory for activism and thus participate in the closure of the academic sphere, we should recognize that “there is no road, royal or otherwise, from the insight that all activities are political to a special or different way of engaging in any particular activity, no politics that derives from the truth that everything is politically embedded” (Fish 1989: 314). If the spectacle is the closure of all spheres of life, our politics of the Internet should essentially involve a notion of radical openness that we take from our new understanding of power of open Marxism. This openness entails that the politics of cultures of dissent cannot be essentialized into a homogeneous ‘resistance’ but that they will change their tactics for ever new games of power. It will be a fluid politics “that do not necessarily improve the position of existing groups as they are currently constituted but change them in unforeseeable ways” (Poster 2001: 3). Such politics answers our concerns with a monolithic notion of ‘resistance’ in that it poses “a lateral, polycentric concept of anticapitalist alliances-in-diversity, connecting a plurality of agencies in a circulation of struggles” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 68). From our discussion of cultures of dissent on the Internet, we have learned that this circulation of struggles essentially involves an amateur perspective, bricolage, or “nonscientific engineering” with the materials at hand (Fiske 1999: 150). Again, it is important to recognize the necessarily provisional nature of all of these suggestions for activist perspectives on and off the Internet. We are not looking for our own version of the ‘network utopia,’ but we can view critical practice in general through the lens of micro-movements on the Net in order to recognize the radical contextuality of such activisms and our own outlook. We might then call such a fluid politics of the net-scapes ‘situational activism.’

Halting the Internet

If situational activism is essentially about keeping our outlook radically flexible, the answer to the ideas that come from the many different versions of the libratory coalition might actually be to try to stop the advancement of the Internet-as-spectacle altogether: “leftist energies should be directed toward an immediate effort at halting, or at least drastically slowing, its diffusion” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 53). Instead of trying to grow new, ‘alternative’ roots of the rhizome, we have to try and disturb the growth of the main roots since the speed in which the whole structure develops leaves us little time to start to imagine in what way we could meaningfully develop different roots at all. Thus, while the idea of stopping the Internet might sound frivolous at first, a general attitude of pragmatic skepticism concerning networked computing might in fact open up spaces for discussion about they way in which technology could be used meaningfully to enhance democracy:

In times of hyper growth, such a proposal to hold up the development of a technology may sound conservative, but its aim is to protect that technology from being reduced to one single quality, to one single idea—shopping mall or money machine, total work or total entertainment environment (Lovink 2002: 344).

The halting of the Net then is the pragmatist frame of mind that might serve as the basis for situational activism and the beginning of a critical Internet studies. Instead of seeking out the special, the marginal group of resistance, critical academic practice should learn to pay attention to everyday practice and recognize the banality of the Internet. As Lovink writes, “Logging onto the net will soon be as fascinating and as meaningful as picking up the phone” (Lovink 2002: 330). Such a pragmatic stance has the benefit of opening up our mind to the real struggles that surround the Internet in our time.

Although we have sidestepped this issue in our discussion up to this point, perhaps we are now also in a position to recognize why situational activism should not be called ‘art.’ Art has become a marketplace, it has turned into a part of the spectacle. All projects to free art from entering the condition of an information commodity have failed in the final instance, since they routed around their own consequence: even radical notions such as the happenings of the 60s and the concept of ‘lifelike art’ (Kaprow 1993) could be fed back into the cycle of art-as-commodity as ‘non-art art.’ As Critical Art Ensemble writes:

Once an audience outside the specialization of cultural production hears that a given object is art, a set of expectations clicks in that neutralizes resistant meaning: The expectation of an uplifting object that will reveal the wisdom of ages past and the utopian vision of the future, which are in turn associated with the principle of the state ( Critical Art Ensemble 1995: 48).

On a deeper level, we could perhaps say with John Fiske that “Aesthetics is a disciplinary system, an attempt by the bourgeoisie to exert the equivalent control over the cultural economy that it does over the financial” (Fiske 1996: 130). Thus, only when artists “willingly cease to be artists” can they work on a project beyond the art market, converting what they do “like dollars into yen” into something meaningful for the larger social formation outside collectors and buyers (Kaprow 1993: 125). We might then regard ‘political art’ or ‘activist art’ with the same pragmatic skepticism with which we have qualified the possibilities of ‘resistance’ that seem to exist on the Internet. Since the art market follows the spectacle in its increase of the speed in which objects get incorporated into its logic, we might follow Critical Art Ensemble and recognize that regarding our critical practice, “The only option for immediate practical results is to sidestep the issue altogether by avoiding the designation of resistant cultural objects as art” (Critical Art Ensemble 1995: 48-49). Otherwise, we will not be able to formulate a meaningful critique of capital that takes into account the insights of micro-movements on the Internet.

If a key tactics for a democratic politics today will involve the halting of the Internet as the place in which the logic of capital advances most rapidly, what might such a practice look like? Importantly, we have to recognize that we can only give tentative answers here, because we would otherwise construct open Marxism, ongoing struggle, or fractal capitalism as the next monolithic notion that we set out to critique. Nonetheless, we might say that in our academic life, we should halt theories that result in a

reluctance to work cooperatively and collectively with others, in a cynicism about the ability of ordinary people to change their own conditions, in a stoic fatalism resigned to the powerlessness and isolation of the intellectuals as an immutable condition, and in a working definition of politics as symbolic and self-referential gestures rather than coordinated and collective mass struggle (Lipsitz 2000: 82).

In addition to attempting to disturb the closure of the academic sphere in that manner, we should recognize that the only meaningful practice to act against the accelerating distribution of the spectacle over the Net is to halt the Internet itself. Whereas we should produce “theoretical noise” as critical writers (Hall 1992: 278), we should be critical computer users, skeptical, pragmatic networkers who connect to each other during the week and who might become Luddites on the weekend. We might again find the time then to recognize that, contrary to what the spectacle of post-Marxism might make us believe, “the Marxist project has never been to help capitalism find a way out of crisis. It has been to find a way out of capitalism” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 60).

    1. Theories

Against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God's name is the point of cultural studies?

Stuart Hall

We are finally in a position to ask in what way the practice of cultural studies itself can benefit from some of our insights into the pragmatic politics of cultures of dissent on the Internet. Mark Poster writes that “without a concept of culture, the study of new media incorporates by default the culture of the dominant institutions in society” (Poster 2001: 2). In the same manner in which we have qualified ‘resistance,’ we might also qualify monolithic concepts of culture and cultural studies as a critical academic field itself. As Todd Gitlin points out, “students of cultural studies should not be surprised to discover that cultural studies is susceptible to analysis as an object of cultural study” (Gitlin 1997: 25). As honorable as it is, the idea that cultural studies is a politically engaged practice that is different from everyday academic practice seem to become problematic in regard to the commodification of information that takes place especially in North American universities, and with increasing speed also in our Central European institutions. Some scholars seem to engage in theory wars that mirror the wars between larger corporations instead of taking on a position of the information-sharing ‘virtual intellectual’ (Geert Lovink). Through the rapid copying and sharing of information and free resources over the Internet with his or her peers, the work of such an ‘intellectual’ might disturb the closure of critical academic thinking.

Academic Closures

There is a deep agreement of intellectuals from a range of different outlooks concerning the political project of American cultural studies as an academic field. Henry Giroux, for instance, writes that “Cultural studies is more than simply an academic discourse; it offers a critical vocabulary for shaping public life as a form of practical politics” (Giroux 1992: 13). And Todd Gitlin proclaims that “There is something more going on in cultural studies than the pursuit of tenure and self-promotion by young and no-longer-so-young academics” (Gitlin 1997: 25). Such notions of cultural studies as “an integral part of a struggle for a better society and a better life” (Kellner 1995: 120) construct the field as an romanticized, sealed-off space in the same way that monolithic notions of ‘resistance’ construct the Left into a homogeneous social formation: cultural studies takes on qualities that many intellectuals seem to be missing in real life. Perhaps such a notion of cultural studies is still grounded on a problematic concept of culture itself. To be sure, it is commonplace by now to interrogate culture: “Culture has become a problem for everyone. What was once a safe ground of inquiry has shifted as if by some earthquake whose effects long went unmeasured on academic Richter scales” (Poster 2001: 1). However, although we have come a long way from Matthew Arnold’s idea that “culture is, or ought to be, the study of perfection” (Arnold 1924: 33), we still have to arrive at a notion of cultural studies that integrates into its self-understanding the struggle over culture. As Raymond Williams reminds us, “the idea of culture, and the word itself in its general modern uses, came into English thinking in the period which we commonly describe as that of the Industrial Revolution” (Williams 1958: vii). Thus, the very notion of culture involves struggles over many different closures; it is “an artifact created by bracketing Nature off” (Latour 1993: 104, italics in original). If we recognize that culture is essentially a fought-over concept, those versions of cultural studies that do not incorporate this problematic into their own outlook seem to shy away from the consequences of their own methodology in the same manner in which conceptual art routed around its own conclusion. Essentially, they become a symptom of the closure of the critical academic sphere when they should really think about culture as an ongoing process.

If we take these limits of cultural studies one step further and relate them to the notion of fractal capitalism, we can perhaps diagnose the very discipline of cultural studies as a sedentary pool for critical intellectuals (Chaney 1994, Garnham 1997, Gitlin 1997). While in Britain, “cultural studies came into prominence as a compensation for the embattled position of the English-speaking Left” (Gitlin 1997: 34), the spatial articulation of cultural studies in the United States follows this logic on different historical grounds. American cultural studies might not be able to arrive at a working notion of critical academic practice on several levels: on the one hand, the intellectual marketplace or what Stuart Hall calls the “highly rarified and enormously elaborated and well-funded professional world of American academic life” (Hall 1992: 286) is engaged in its very own power struggles: as culture is taken away from the intellectuals, the celebrations of popular cultures in the American academic sphere seem to be little more than a bid to sustain a privileged status (Chaney 1994: 9). On another level lies perhaps a dissatisfaction of critical academia with government that “seems fixed, particularly elections, yet in culture anything is possible” (Cruikshank 2000: 63). But essentially, cultural studies in the U.S. has never really been ‘Left’ in the first place: much of American cultural studies seems to have internalized the myth of America as a classless society (Ferguson and Golding 1997): emphasizing race over class, social formations in the American context are primarily seen as the product of individual enterprise rather than that of a collective social and political configuration. Essentially, the construction of American cultural studies as a democratic place within the academy is a symptom for the closure of the academic sphere.

Cultural Studies without Guarantees

Traditionally, many critical writing on cultures of dissent has been concerned with the role of the writer as an intellectual. Perhaps the most famous version of the critical thinker is Gramsci’s notion of the ‘organic intellectual’ with a “progressive self-consciousness in which theory and practice will finally be one” (Gramsci 2002: 67). Gramsci and others (Lipsitz 2000, Giroux 1992, Chaney 1994, Grossberg 1997) are highly critical of traditional intellectual work. If we follow their concerns, most of our intellectual practice consists in ‘theory wars’ in which real struggles are played out with high energy in the relatively secure environment of the academy, “militant posturing and internecine battles with one another that ultimately have more to do with individual subjectivities and self-images than with disciplined collective struggle for resources and power” (Lipsitz 2000: 80). In most of such writing, “theory is enshrined as the determinant of reality” (Chaney 1994: 25). A particular problematic aspect of these theory wars in cultural studies is what Henry Giroux calls intellectual tourism: “the study of popular culture becomes a form of border crossing in which the Other becomes a resource for academic appropriation and valorization” (Giroux 1992: 243).

If such concerns with the role of the critical thinker within activist movements are in part based on the recognition of an academic marketplace of fractal capitalism, they nonetheless seem to miss the productive tension in the fact that many critics today “have to think one way and live another, to believe in a more egalitarian and open society while working within increasingly elitist and closed institutions” (Lipsitz 2000: 80). It is this tension that is similar to the contradiction at the heart of the spectacle and that makes us realize that we might be caught in a pessimistic critical outlook because of the limits of our own imagination in the first place. Which notion of a critical academic practice can we set against the monolithic intellectual? Perhaps Geert Lovink’s idea of the ‘virtual intellectual’ is a useful metaphor here: practicing a pragmatic, situational use of technology that enhances his or her practice, the virtual intellectual tries to route around an “excessive preoccupation with political expression and analysis, with finding the right word for the right situation and the correct context for one’s own thought” that typically leads away from the thinking that is needed to open up our outlook from academic closure toward disorganized social change (Lipsitz 2000: 82). Instead of being a consumer of theory-as-commodity, this intellectual turns away from the temptation to reading and writing more and more books to find a pragmatic way of utilizing theory for social action (McRobbie 1994: 41). Regarding cultural critics of the Internet, “the specific task of the virtual intellectual will be to explore negative thinking’ (Lovink 2002: 38-39). The virtual intellectual will know when to use basic technology to communicate ideas with others to develop a collective, pragmatic skepticism about a ‘network utopia’ that opens up a space for the continuous reformulation of activist thinking.

How does our concept of cultural studies change if we follow the notion of the virtual intellectual? Although a more definite description of the ramifications would be a project for a much larger study, we might recognize a few general characteristics.

Essentially, cultural studies of the Internet is as an interpretation of power in the condition of fractal capitalism. Recognizing that “cultural objects are not innocent” (Chaney 1994: 46), we should be aware of the basic tension that is underlying life in the spectacle and that reaches into our academic sphere. As Stuart Hall cautions: “If you lose hold of the tension, you can do extremely fine intellectual work, but you will have lost intellectual practice as politics” (Hall 1992: 284). Cultural studies then changes into a fluid field of research whose basic project it is to hold open all possibilities: in the best of all possible worlds, to do cultural studies would simply mean to practice a politics of possibility against the closures of the spectacle. As Raymond Williams tirelessly asserts, this practice should regard culture as a culture of something, as a “a whole way of life” (Williams 1958: xviii), as an ongoing process. Cultural studies’ essential task in our time of networked computing is to think negatively through the limits of the political, as Henry Giroux writes in the passage that serves as the epigraph for this essay. If I have succeeded in making this practice seem more plausible in this essay, I will have contributed to the reformulation of a cultural studies that might lead the field outside of the sedentary pool for critical intellectuals that it seems to be now. If it is not time for us to think up a next utopia, it might still be time for critics and practitioners to wake up and remember our political edge.

  1. Conclusion

The thing to do is to take the bull by the tail and try to swing him.

Allan Kaprow

The United States are one of the most “inauspicious of current contexts for class struggle and, consequently, an acid test for the continuation that such conflict has not vanished from the horizons of the information era” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 93). In our discussion of cultures of dissent on the Internet, we have seen that the conflict has not disappeared: there are hackers who are trying to break into computer systems and hackers who program free software, but there is also a culture of everyday hacking that opposes the spectacle of the Internet. There are organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation that try to free cyberspace from control of the monolithic power that they hold the American administration to be, but there are also micro-movements that are ‘dirty little practices’ (Geert Lovink) that try to work toward an understanding of public space as a verb, as a unfolding public domain. With their pragmatic attitude of making-do and their general skepticism about notions such as ‘counterculture’ and ‘resistance,’ these micro-struggles should warn us that the traditional project of cultural studies to locate a coherent group or class as a revolutionary subject should not continue in the condition of fractal capitalism. To be sure, “Cyberspace is important as a political arena […] within which terrestrial struggles can be made visible and linked with one another” (Dyer-Witheford 1999: 128). However, it is not so much a projection of a new utopia of the Internet into such micro-movements that this essay has been trying to make, but an attempt to use the Internet as a thing to think with about the closure of critical practice in general.

The ramifications of our discussion are manifold. First of all, the discourse about computer security and the way in which computer criminals are punished should make us realize that in our time, networked computing is the highest guarded locus of capital. If the spectacle has moved to cyberspace, it is vital for us to recognize that computer culture is not just a youth ‘subculture,’ but a key field of political action in our contemporary cycle of struggle. Then, theories that attempt to grasp this field of action in a pessimistic way that is based on their post-Marxist critique of political action itself remain grounded in the very ideology that they are trying to attack: in many different forms and social formations, such theories are symptoms of the closures of our lives in the spectacle. Thus, we should halt such theories, in a similar way in that the only meaningful practice to act against the accelerating distribution of the spectacle over the Net is to halt the Internet itself. As Raymond Williams reminds us, “we are all in the game” (Williams 1958: 319). So let us get to the playing ground with a reformulated understanding of our own critical agency that we take from open Marxism. If we take the information highway, we will be facing a road block. However, if we take the street and stop at a sarai, we might find many people from different walks of life who might be unexpected allies for us in the project of the continuous reformulation of politics that is democracy.

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One of the good things about writing on culture and technology is that you find yourself supported by an international network of people that you can turn to when in doubt about your ideas. In the academic part of this network, two professors have been my main guides and mentors. Winfried Fluck at the John F. Kennedy Institute of the FU Berlin has been a benevolent teacher of a politically engaged cultural studies. During my year with a DAAD program at the University of California in Santa Cruz, Maggie Morse has been a warm-hearted mentor and invaluable guide into the field of digital culture. Many Net culture critics have supported my research by commenting on parts of my work, criticizing my talks, or by giving me their opinions on sketchy ideas over email or in person. I am particularly grateful to Inke Arns, Richard Barbrook, Florian Cramer, Geert Lovink, Eric Raymond, Richard Stallman, John Young, and the members of the nettime and Rohrpost mailing lists. All errors and misleading arguments that may have resulted from not incorporating their advice well enough into my writing are of course mine.

This essay has benefited greatly through comments and suggestions from Amy Stafford.

As always, I am deeply grateful to my parents and my partner Lill-Ann Körber for their love and support.

Henning Ziegler

Berlin, November 10, 2003

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About the author: Henning Ziegler holds an M.A. in American studies and teaches at the John F. Kennedy Institute at Freie Universität Berlin. He is currently working on his doctoral dissertation about changes in the concept of politics that are manifest in cultures of activism on the Internet. He has published several articles on Internet culture which have appeared in journals such as NMEDIAC or Dichtung Digital. You can contact the author via his website
  Dissent on the Net: Cultures of Electronic Resistance in the United States by Henning Ziegler
Journal of Hyper(+)drome.Manifestation, Issue 1 - September 2004 Collaborative Filtering

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